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#242: NO SUMMER FRIEND, BUT WINTRY COLD.

#242. NO SUMMER FRIEND, BUT WINTRY COLD.  Born in 1830, Christina Rossetti was the youngest of four children born to an Italian political exile and an English woman named Frances Polidori—sister to the Polidori who was Byron’s longtime friend, and who wrote the first vampire story in English.  Her elder brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was for many decades the family star, but his paintings and poetry both have fallen out of favor except with people peculiarly amenable to Victoriana—those staring, blank-eyed female portraits, those heavy-booted poems.  Christina’s Victorianism is of a sparer kind: the poems are haunting and musical, with a subdued falling tone.  Her forms and meters, hesitant as they may look, are exact to her intent; nothing slows or speeds by accident, and she has a superb formal sense.  She is simply the greater poet.

       The Victorianism comes at a different price.  A sense of sorrow and constriction are the common mood of the poems—we feel in them the stays and starches, the black-bombazine, the heavy stuffs of Victorian funereal dress.  The scent of incense hovers—Rossetti’s family was heavily Anglo-Catholic.  The imagery of the verse is full of flowers and animals and the changing seasons, but all pleasures are brief and thwarted, often tainted—her famous story-poem “Goblin Market” has the thick air of fruit left too long on the branch.  As the pages turn, and one more poem after another concludes that life is only and purely sorrow, that the one certain hope is in the sleep of death, that religious experience is entirely in confession and self-abnegation, it’s possible to feel a kind of choking claustrophobia.  The mood is regret, regret, regret, made all the more heart-twisting by the quietude of the versifying; the poems speak with the voice of one entombed.

 

                              I would have gone; God bid me stay.

                                  I would have worked; God bade me rest.

                              He broke my will from day to day;

                                   He read my yearnings unexpressed

                                        And said them nay.

 

       The just comparison might be with Emily Bronte’s dirge “Remembrance,” one of the most rendingly sorrowful poems of the nineteenth century, and a wilder cry than Rossetti ever allowed herself.  But the contrast must be with Dickinson, who was Rossetti’s almost exact contemporary.  Dickinson fought with solitude, confinement, isolation, just as Rossetti did; but the word “fought” perhaps conveys the difference.  Dickinson’s fractured meters and syntax are constantly pulling the chair out from under us; Rossetti’s poems, traditionally metrical, lull along more purely in a mode of regret, resignation, even despair.

       But still, she speaks.  She sings.  Those faint, ghostly colors have their own range, their own truth.  “I am no summer friend, but wintry cold.”  By the time you get to the poems of old age, to the last cycle of sonnets, you realize that, past the forlorn tone, the religiosity, the bowing to misery, all of them so foreign to the contemporary reader, you’ve stayed with her, come to respect and understand this woman whose time and society, her own heart even, rendered her so painfully immobile.  This retiring, trembling creature had iron in her guts, and rang the most startlingly delicate music off of it, startling most in the fact that it has endured.  Her reputation and readership continue to rise, and Basil de Selincourt some years ago named her “probably in the first twelve of the masters of English verse.”

 

                              When I am dead, my dearest,

                                   Sing no sad songs for me;

                              Plant thou no roses at my head,

                                   Nor shady cypress tree;

                              Be the green grass above me

                                   With showers and dewdrops wet;

                              And if thou wilt, remember,

                                   And if thou wilt, forget.

 

                              I shall not see the shadows,

                                   I shall not feel the rain;

                              I shall not hear the nightingale

                                   Sing on, as if in pain;

                              And dreaming through the twilight

                                   That doth not rise, nor set,

                              Haply I may remember,

                                   And haply may forget.

 

 

 

I read Selected Poems: Christina Rossetti, edited by Ian Hamilton, in the Bloomsbury Pocket Poet series, Saint Martin’s Press.  The Complete Poems, 2005, annotated by Betty Flowers, is published by Penguin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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