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The Song of the Heart

Christina Rosetti's Complete Poems
The Song of the Heart

By Drew Trotter

 

On Easter Sunday morning this year, I was so inspired by the joy of the day that I needed to sing. Singing hymns sprang first to mind, but I knew that I would soon be singing in my church, and I decided to look for a good Easter poem from the books of poetry that fill the shelves underneath the rear windows of my study. It did not take me long to settle on the book I am reviewing in this brief essay, The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti.

One of the great poets of the nineteenth century, Rossetti (1830-1894) has not been treated well by the anthologists of the modern era. Two common anthologies include the same four poems, and three of these deal with essentially one theme: death. They are fine poems to be sure, and Rossetti just as certainly often wrote poems contemplating both the death of others and her own death. It is also probably fair to say with many critics that the theme of morbidity dominates her work. She writes much of loss and suffering, both physical and spiritual.

But this prolific Victorian poet wrote just as beautifully of almost everything else, too—nature, love of every Christian kind, birthdays, the days of the church calendar, Greek mythology and on and on. Even the subject of death is not treated as morbidly as one might think, if one only read Rossetti’s critics. The hope of heaven, the joy of the resurrection, the power of the sacrifice of Christ to win our freedom from sin and its fearsome wages—these are almost invariably associated with death in her poems, turning the sorrow of the great enemy into an anticipation of life that is much more deeply positive than negative.

For instance, take the poem I settled on for my Easter meditation. One of seven poems in the collection with the word “Easter” in the title (who knows how many there are that deal with Easter in some way), “An Easter Carol” begins with one of the merriest couplets to be found in English poetry:

 

Spring bursts today,

For Christ is risen and all the earth’s at play.

 

The brief first line emphasizes every word; the iambic pentameter of the second line supports the surety and completeness of the content of the verse, which proclaims the power of Christ’s resurrection to free all the created order from the burden of the Fall of Adam and the curse of work dominated by toil. The next nine stanzas, all in the same brief structure but light and joyous tone, enjoin the sun, various fruits and vines, herds and flocks, and eventually “Angels and Men and Birds and everything” to sing and leap and rejoice. Christ is risen so the command rings out “All notes of Doves/Fill all our world: this is the time of loves.”

Twice in the poem Rossetti does indeed allude to death. She speaks of two very well known deaths, that of Christ and that of the stone-cold cycle of nature, Winter. Both are triumphed over, however, by symbols of resurrection power:

 

Break forth this morn

In roses, thou but yesterday a Thorn.

and

Uplift thy head,

O pure white Lily thro’ the Winter dead.

 

The thorn of the cross and the death of winter are no match for the beauty and the resurrection power of the rose and the lily.

This collection contains all Rossetti’s known poems and a superb brief introduction to her life and work. Her younger brother, William, found and published many poems after her death, but she was a well-respected and successful poet during her lifetime. A spinster, she was twice engaged, and twice thwarted in marriage for religious reasons. Her first fiancée, a young painter named James Collinson, converted from Catholicism to Rossetti’s Anglicanism, then relented, and the marriage plans ended. Her later and apparently deepest love, Charles Cayley, was a religious skeptic, and she simply could not reconcile herself to marriage to an unbeliever.

A member of a famously artistic family, Rossetti’s brother Dante Gabriel was a popular painter and writer. Both brother and sister were part of the group known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (Christina associated herself with this all-male group of artists). Though Christina was devoutly High Anglican (she is also associated with the famous Oxford Movement, which sought to emphasize high church rituals within Anglicanism, without accepting Roman doctrine), she was by no means uncomfortable with the world of Darwinian England. Her younger brother was an atheist, and Dante, though avowedly Christian, lived like one, yet they remained Christina’s most trusted critics throughout her life.

One of the things I most enjoy about Rossetti’s poetry is its accessibility to anyone. The poetry contains a certain amount of the standard “Thees and Thous” so common to that age of poetry, but none of the inscrutability of twentieth century poetry distances her poems from broader audiences. Her devotional and her doctrinal poems are both fresh and thoughtful.

This edition is superbly edited and indexed, and, as I mentioned above, contains a densely packed but readable six page introduction to Rossetti’s life and work. There are larger biographies of course (several are mentioned in this book’s preface), but all the relevant information of her life is given in this book’s introduction and on the timeline that accompanies it. The paperback is large though not too heavy or bulky, and with all Penguin Classics in a very readable typeface.

Spiritual life bursts forth from great art. Read and be refreshed.

 

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