Christina Rossetti

PROBABLY the first impression one gets from reading the Complete Poetical Works of Christina Rossetti, now collected and edited by her brother, Mr. W. M. Rossetti, is that she wrote altogether too much, and that it was a doubtful service to her memory to preserve so many poems purely private in their nature. The editor, one thinks, might well have shown himself more “reverent of her strange simplicity.” For page after page we are in the society of a spirit always refined and exquisite in sentiment, but without any guiding and restraining artistic impulse; she never drew to the shutters of her soul, but lay open to every wandering breath of heaven. In comparison with the works of the more creative poets her song is like the continuous lisping of an æolian harp beside the music elicited by cunning fingers. And then, suddenly, out of this sweet monotony, moved by some stronger, clearer breeze of inspiration, there sounds a strain of wonderful beauty and flawless perfection, unmatched in its own kind in English letters. An anonymous purveyor of anecdotes has recently told how one of these more exquisite songs called forth the enthusiasm of Swinburne. It was just after the publication of Goblin Market and Other Poems, and in a little company of friends that erratic poet and critic started to read aloud from the volume. Turning first to the devotional paraphrase which begins with “Passing away, saith the World, passing away,” he chanted the lines in his own emphatic manner, then laid the book down with a vehement gesture. Presently he took it up again, and a second time read the poem through, even more impressively. “By God!” he exclaimed at the end, “that’s one of the finest things ever written!”

Passing1 away, saith the World, passing away:
Chances, beauty, and youth, sapped day by day,
Thy life never continueth in one stay.
Is the eye waxen dim, is the dark hair changing to gray,
That hath won neither laurel nor bay ?
I shall clothe myself in Spring and bud in May:
Thou, root-stricken, shalt not rebuild thy decay
On my bosom for aye.
Then I answered : Yea.
Passing away, saith my Soul, passing away :
With its burden of fear and hope, of labor and play,
Hearken what the past doth witness and say :
Rust in thy gold, a moth is in thine array,
A canker is in thy bud, thy leaf must decay.
At midnight, at cockcrow, at morning, one certain day
Lo the Bridegroom shall come and shall not delay;
Watch thou and pray.
Then I answered : Yea.
Passing away, saith my God, passing away:
Winter passeth after the long delay :
New grapes on the vine, new figs on the tender
Turtle calleth turtle in Heaven’s May.
Though I tarry, wait for Me, trust Me, watch and pray :
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.

And Swinburne, somewhat contrary to his wont, was right. Purer inspiration, less troubled by worldly motives, than these verses cannot easily be found. Nor would it be difficult to discover in their brief compass most of the qualities that lend distinction to Christina Rossetti’s work. Even her monotone, which after long continuation becomes monotony, affects one here as a subtle device heightening the note of subdued fervor and religious resignation; the repetition of the rhyming vowel creates the feeling of a secret expectancy cherished through the weariness of a frustrate life. If there is any excuse for publishing the many poems that express the mere unlifted, unvaried prayer of her heart, it is because their monotony may prepare the mind for the strange artifice of this solemn chant. But such a preparation demands more patience than a poet may justly claim from the ordinary reader. Better would be a volume of selections from her works, including a number of poems of this character. It would stand, in its own way, supreme in English literature, — as pure and fine an expression of the feminine genius as the world has yet heard.

It is, indeed, as the flower of strictly feminine genius that Christina Rossetti should be read and judged. She is one of a group of women who brought this new note into Victorian poetry, — Louisa Shore, Jean Ingelow, rarely Mrs. Browning, and, I may add, Mrs. Meynell. She is like them, but of a higher, finer strain than they (καλαì δέ τε πâσαι), and I always think of her as of her brother’s Blessed Damozel, circled with a company of singers, yet holding herself aloof in chosen loneliness of passion. She, too, has not quite ceased to yearn toward earth: —

And still she bowed herself and stooped
Out of the circling charm ;
Until her bosom must have made
The bar she leaned on warm,
And the lilies lay as if asleep
Along her bended arm.

I have likened the artlessness of much of her writing to the sweet monotony of an seolian harp. The comparison returns as expressing also the purely feminine spirit of her inspiration. There is in her a passive surrender to the powers of life, a religious acquiescence, which wavers between a plaintive pathos and a sublime exultation of faith. The great world, with its harsh indifference for the weak, passes over her as a ruinous gale rushes over a sequestered wood-flower; she bows her head, humbled but not broken, nor ever forgetful of her gentle mission, —

And strong in patient weakness till the end.

She bends to the storm, yet no one, not the great mystics nor the greater poets who cry out upon the sound and fury of life, is more constantly impressed by the vanity and fleeting insignificance of the blustering power, or more persistently looks for consolation and joy from another source. But there is a difference. Read the masculine poets who have heard this mystic call of the spirit, and you feel yourself in the presence of a strong will that has grasped the world, and, finding it insufficient, deliberately casts it away; and there is no room for pathetic regret in their ruthless determination to renounce. But this womanly poet does not properly renounce at all, she passively allows the world to glide away from her. The strength of her genius is endurance: —

She stands there like a beacon through the night,
A pale clear beacon where the storm-drift is ——
She stands alone, a wonder deathly-white :
She stands there patient, nerved with inner might,
Indomitable in her feebleness,
Her face and will athirst against the light.

It is characteristic of her feminine disposition that the loss of the world should have come to her first of all in the personal relation of love. And here we must signalize the chief service of the editor toward his sister. It was generally known in a vague way, indeed it was easy to surmise as much from her published work, that Christina Rossetti bore with her always the sadness of unfulfilled affection. In the introductory Memoir her brother has now given a sufficiently detailed account of this matter to remove all ambiguity. I am not one to wish that the reserves and secret emotions of an author should be displayed for the mere gratification of the curious; but in this case the revelation would seem to be justified as a needed explanation of poems which she herself was willing to publish. Twice, it appears, she gave her love, and both times drew back in a kind of tremulous awe from the last step. The first affair began in 1848, before she was eighteen, and ran its course in about two years. The man was one James Collinson, an artist of mediocre talent who had connected himself with the Preraphaelite Brotherhood. He was originally a Protestant, but had become a Roman Catholic. Then, as Christina refused to ally herself to one of that faith, he compliantly abandoned Rome for the Church of England. His conscience, however, which seems from all accounts to have been of a flabby consistency, troubled him in the new faith, and he soon reverted to Catholicism. Christina then drew back from him finally. It is not so easy to understand why she refused the second suitor, with whom she became intimately acquainted about 1860, and whom she loved in her own retiring fashion until the day of her death. This was Charles Bagot Cayley, a brother of the famous Cambridge mathematician, himself a scholar and in a small way a poet. Some idea of the man may be obtained from a notice of him written by Mr. W. M. Rossetti for the Athenœum after his death. “A more complete specimen than Mr. Charles Cayley,” says Mr. Rossetti, “of the abstracted scholar in appearance and manner — the scholar who constantly lives an inward and unmaterial life, faintly perceptive of external facts and appearances — could hardly be conceived. He united great sweetness to great simplicity of character, and was not less polite than unworldly.” One might suppose that such a temperament was peculiarly fitted to join with that of the secluded poetess, and so, to judge from her many love poems, it actually was. Of her own heart or of his there seems to have been no doubt in her mind. Even in her most rapturous visions of heaven, like the yearning cry of the Blessed Damozel, the memory of that stilled passion often breaks out: —

How should I rest in Paradise,
Or sit on steps of heaven alone ?
If Saints and Angels spoke of love,
Should I not answer from my throne,
Have pity upon me, ye my friends.
For I have heard the sound thereof ?

She seems even not to have been unfamiliar with the hope of joy, and I like to believe that her best-known lyric of gladness, “My heart is like a singing bird,” was inspired by the early dawning of this passion. But the hope and the joy soon passed away and left her only the solemn refrain of acquiescence: “Then I answered: Yea.” Her brother can give no sufficient explanation of this refusal on her part to accept the happiness almost in her hand, though he hints at lack of religious sympathy between the two. Some inner necessity of sorrow and resignation, one almost thinks, drew her back in both cases, some perception that the real treasure of her heart lay not in this world: —

A voice said, “ Follow, follow : ” and I rose
And followed far into the dreamy night,
Turning my back upon the pleasant light.
It led me where the bluest water flows,
And would not let me drink: where the corn grows
I dared not pause, but went uncheered by sight
Or touch : until at length in evil plight
It left me, wearied out with many woes.
Some time I sat as one bereft of sense :
But soon another voice from very far
Called, “ Follow, follow : ” and I rose again.
Now on my night has dawned a blessed star :
Kind steady hands my sinking steps sustain,
And will not leave me till I go from hence.

It might seem that here was a spirit of renunciation akin to that of the more masculine mystics; indeed, a great many of her poems are, unconsciously I presume, almost a paraphrase of that recurring theme of the Imitation: “ Nolle consolari ab aliqua creatura,” and again: “ A more igitur Creatoris, amorem hominis superavit; et pro humano solatio, divinum beneplacitum magis elegit.” She, too, was unwilling to find consolation in any creature, and turned from the love of man to the love of the Creator; yet a little reading of her exquisite hymns will show that this renunciation has more the nature of surrender than of deliberate choice: —

He broke my will from day to day;
He read my yearnings unexprest,
And said them nay.

The world is withheld from her by a power above her will, and always this power stands before her in that, peculiarly personal form which it assumes in the feminine mind. Her faith is a mere transference to heaven of a love that terrifies her in its ruthless earthly manifestation; and the passion of her life is henceforth a yearning expectation of the hour when the Bridegroom shall come and she shall answer, Yea. Nor is the earthly source of this love forgotten; it abides with her as a dream which often is not easily distinguished from its celestial transmutation : —

O dream how sweet, too sweet, too bitter sweet,
Whose wakening should have been in Paradise,
Where souls brimful of love abide and meet;
Where thirsting longing eyes
Watch the slow door
That opening, letting in, lets out no more.
Yet come to me in dreams, that I may live
My very life again though cold in death :
Come back to me in dreams, that I may give
Pulse for pulse, breath for breath :
Speak low, lean low,
As long ago, my love, how long ago.

It is this perfectly passive attitude toward the powers that command her heart and her soul — a passivity which by its completeness assumes the misguiding semblance of a deliberate determination of life — that makes her to me the purest expression in English of the feminine genius. I know that many would think this preëminence belongs to Mrs. Browning. They would point out the narrowness of Christina Rossetti’s range, and the larger aspects of woman’s nature, neglected by her, which inspire some of her rival’s best-known poems. To me, on the contrary, it is the very scope attempted by Mrs. Browning that prevents her from holding the place I would give to Christina Rossetti. So much of Mrs. Browning — her political ideas, her passion for reform, her scholarship — simply carries her into the sphere of the masculine poets where she suffers by an unfair comparison. She would be a better and less irritating writer without these excursions into a field for which she was not fitted. The uncouthness that so often mars her language is chiefly due to an unreconciled feud between her intellect and her heart. She had neither a woman’s wise passivity nor a man’s controlling will. Even within the range of strictly feminine powers her genius is not simple and typical. And here I must take refuge in a paradox which is like enough to carry but little conviction. Nevertheless, it is the truth. I mean to say that probably most women will regard Mrs. Browning as the better type of their sex, whereas to men the honor will seem to belong to Miss Rossetti; and that the judgment of a man in this matter is more conclusive than a woman’s. This is a paradox, I admit, yet its solution is simple. Women will judge a poetess by her inclusion of the larger human nature, and will resent the limiting of her range to the qualities that we look upon as peculiarly feminine. The passion of Mrs. Browning, her attempt to control her inspiration to the demands of a shaping intellect, her questioning and answering, her larger aims, in a word, her effort to create, — all these will be set down to her credit by women who are as appreciative of such qualities as men, and who will not be annoyed by the false tone running through them. Men, on the contrary, are apt, in accepting a woman’s work or in creating a female character, to be interested more in the traits and limitations which distinguish her from her masculine complement. They care more for the idea of woman, and less for woman as merely a human being. Thus, for example, I should not hesitate to say that Thackeray’s heroines are more womanly than George Eliot’s, — though I am aware of the ridicule to which such an opinion lays me open; and for the same reason I hold that Christina Rossetti is a more complete exemplar of feminine genius, and, as being more perfect in her own sphere, a better poet than Mrs. Browning. That disconcerting sneer of Edward FitzGerald’s, which so enraged Robert Browning, would never have occurred to him, I think, in the case of Miss Rossetti.

There is a curious comment on this contrast in the introduction to Christina Rossetti’s Manna Innominata, a sonnet-sequence in which she tells her own story in the supposed person of an early Italian lady. “Had the great poetess of our own day and nation,” she says, “ only been unhappy instead of happy, her circumstances would have invited her to bequeath to us, in lieu of the Portuguese Sonnets, an inimitable ‘donna innominata drawn not from fancy, but from feeling, and worthy to occupy a niche beside Beatrice and Laura.” Now this sonnetsequence of Miss Rossetti’s is far from her best work, and holds a lower rank in every way than that passionate self-revelation of Mrs. Browning’s; yet to read these confessions of the two poets together is a good way to get at the division between their spirits. In Miss Rossetti’s sonnets all those feminine traits I have dwelt on are present to a marked, almost an exaggerated, degree. They are harmonious within themselves, and filled with a quiet ease; only the higher inspiration is lacking to them in comparison with her Passing Away, and other great lyrics. In Mrs. Browning, on the contrary, one cannot but feel a disturbing element. The very tortuousness of her language, the straining to render her emotion in terms of the intellect, introduces a quality which is out of harmony with the ground theme of feminine surrender. More than that, this submission to love, if looked at more closely, is itself in large part such as might proceed from a man as well as from a woman, so that there results an annoying confusion of masculine and feminine passion. Take, for instance, the twenty-second of the Portuguese Sonnets, one of the most perfect in the series: —

When our two souls stand up erect and strong,
Face to face, drawing nigher and nigher,
Until the lengthening wings break into fire
At either curvèd point, — What bitter wrong
Can earth do to us, that we should not long
Be here contented ? Think. In mounting higher,
The angels would press on us, and aspire
To drop some golden orb of perfect song
Into our deep, dear silence. Let us stay
Rather on earth, Beloved, — where the unfit
Contrarious moods of men recoil away
And isolate pure spirits, and permit
A place to stand and love in for a day,
With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.

That is noble verse, undoubtedly. The point is that it might just as well have been written by a man to a woman as the contrary; it would, for example, fit perfectly well into Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s House of Life. There is here no passivity of soul; the passion is not that of acquiescence, but of determination to press to the quick of love. Only, perhaps, a certain falsetto in the tone (if the meaning of that word may be so extended) shows that, after all, it was written by a woman, who in adopting the masculine pitch loses something of fineness and exquisiteness.

A single phrase of the sonnet, that “deep, dear silence,” links it in my mind with one of Christina Rossetti’s not found in the Monna Innominata, but expressing the same spirit of resignation. It is entitled simply “Rest:” —

O Earth, lie heavily upon her eyes ;
Seal her sweet eyes weary of watching. Earth;
Lie close around her; leave no room for mirth
With its harsh laughter, nor for sound of sighs.
She hath no questions, she hath no replies,
Hushed in and curtained with a blessed dearth
Of all that irked her from the hour of birth ;
With stillness that is almost Paradise.
Darkness more clear than noonday holdeth her,
Silence more musical than any song ;
Even her very heart has ceased to stir :
Until the morning of Eternity
Her rest shall not begin nor end, but be;
And when she wakes she will not think it long.

Am I misguided in thinking that in this stillness, this silence more musical than any song, the feminine heart speaks with a simplicity and consummate purity such as I quite fail to hear in the Portuguese Sonnets, admired as those sonnets are? Nor could one, perhaps, find in all Christina Rossetti’s poems a single line that better expresses the character of her genius than these exquisite words: “With stillness that is almost Paradise.” That is the mood that, with the passing away of love, never leaves her; that is her religion; her acquiescent Yea, to the world and the soul and to God. Into that region of rapt stillness it seems almost a sacrilege to penetrate with inquisitive, critical mind ; it is like tearing away the veil of modesty. I will not attempt to bring out the beauty of her mood by comparing it with that of the more masculine quietists, who reach out and take the kingdom of Heaven by storm, and whose prayer is, in the words of Tennyson: —

Our wills are ours, we know not how ;
Our wills are ours, to make them Thine.

It will be better to quote one other poem, perhaps her most perfect work artistically, and to pass on: —


Does the road wind up-hill all the way ?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day ?
From morn to night, my friend.
But is there for the night a resting-place ?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face ?
You cannot miss that inn.
Shall I meet other wayfarers at night ?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just iu sight ?
They will not keep you standing at that door.
Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak ?
Of labor you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek ?
Yea, beds for all who come.

The culmination of her pathetic weariness is always this cry for rest, a cry for supreme acquiescence in the will of Heaven, troubled by no personal volition, no desire, no emotion, save only love that waits for blessed absorption. Her later years became what St. Teresa called a long “prayer of quiet;” and her brother’s record of her secluded life in the refuge of his home reads like the saintly story of a cloistered nun. It might be said of her, as of one of the fathers, that she needed not to pray, for her life was an unbroken communion with God. And yet that is not all. It is a sign of her utter womanliness that envy for the common affections of life was never quite crushed in her heart. Now and then through this monotony of resignation there wells up a sob of complaint, a note not easy, indeed, to distinguish from that amari aliquid of jealousy, which Thackeray, cynically, as some think, always left at the bottom of his gentlest feminine characters. The fullest expression of this feeling is in one of her longer poems, The Lowest Room, which contrasts the life of two sisters, one of whom chooses the ordinary lot of woman with home and husband and children, while the other learns, year after tedious year, the consolation of lonely patience. The spirit of the poem is not entirely pleasant. The resurgence of personal envy is a little disconcerting; and the only comfort to be derived from it is the proof that under different circumstances Christina Rossetti might have given expression to the more ordinary lot of contented womanhood as perfectly as she sings the pathos and hope of the cloistered life. Had that first voice, which led her “where the bluest water flows,” suffered her also to quench the thirst of her heart, had not that second voice summoned her to follow, this might have been. But literature, I think, would have lost in her gain. As it is, we must recognize that the vision of fulfilled affection and of quiet home joys still troubled her, in her darker hours, with a feeling of embittered regret. Two or three of the stanzas of The Lowest Room even remind one forcibly of that scene in Thomson’s City of Dreadful Night, where the “shrill and lamentable cry ” breaks through the silence of the shadowy congregation: —

In all eternity I had one chance,
One few years’ term of gracious human life,
The splendors of the intellect’s advance,
The sweetness of the home with babes and wife.

But if occasionally this residue of bitterness in Christina Rossetti recalls the more acrid genius of James Thomson, yet a comparison of the two poets (and such a comparison is not fantastic, however unexpected it may appear) would set the feminine character of our subject in a peculiarly vivid light. Both were profoundly moved by the evanescence of life, by the deceitfulness of pleasure, while both at times, Thomson almost continually, were troubled by the apparent content of those who rested in these joys of the world. Both looked forward longingly to the consummation of peace. In his call to Our Lady of Oblivion Thomson might seem to be speaking for both, only in a more deliberately metaphorical style: —

Take me, and lull me into perfect sleep ;
Down, down, far hidden in thy duskiest cave ;
While all the clamorous years above me sweep
Unheard, or, like the voice of seas that rave
On far-off coasts, but murmuring o’er my trance,
A dim vast monotone, that shall enhance
The restful rapture of the inviolate grave.

But the roads by which the two would reach this “silence more musical than any song” were utterly different. With an intellect at once mathematical and constructive, Thomson built out of his personal bitterness and despair a universe corresponding to his own mood, a philosophy of atheistic revolt. Like Lucretius, “he denied divinely the divine.” In that tremendous conversation on the river-walk he represents one soul as protesting to another that not for all his misery would he carry the guilt of creating such a world; whereto the second replies, and it is the poet himself who speaks:—

The world rolls round forever as a mill;
It grinds out death and life and good and ill;
It has no purpose, heart or mind or will. . . .
Man might know one thing were his sight less dim ;
That it whirls not to suit his petty whim,
That it is quite indifferent to him.

There is the voluntary ecstasy of the saints, there is also this stern and self-willed rebellion, and, contrasted with them both, as woman is contrasted with man, there is the acquiescence of Christina Rossetti and of the little group of writers whom she leads in spirit: —

Passing away, saith the World, passing away....
Then I answered : Yea.