Friday, April 15, 2011

Selections from Christina Rossetti

“Goblin Market,” Rossetti's most famous poem, tells the story of Laura and Lizzie, two sisters, one of which is tempted by the goblin's fruit and one who saves her sister after she has fallen. The poem begins catchy adverstising jingle of the goblins: "Morning and evening / Maids heard the goblins cry: / Come buy, come buy our orchard fruits, / Come buy come buy." Laura is tempted by their catchy phrases, and wants to partake of the fruits but has no coin. The goblins answer that she might cut off one of her golden locks in exchange for fruit. She agrees and sensually enjoys the fruits she buys. Back at home, Lizzie tries to warn Laura away from the goblin men, reminding her of "Jeanie, / How she met them in the moonlight" and then "pined and pined away." This is, of course, what ends up happening to Laura and so Lizzie must save her. Lizzie goes herself to the goblins, tosses them a penny and asks them to toss her some fruit. The goblins don't allow her to leave and they harass and assault her. Lizzie withstands the attack, "White and golden Lizzie stood / Like a lily in a flood," maintaining her chastity and refusing to eat the fruits which are shoved into her mouth. Triumphant, Lizzie goes back to Laura back at home and allows Laura to kiss her on the mouth. Having licked the fruits off of her pure sister's mouth, Laura is cured. In the end, though the poem strongly suggests the primacy of sisterhood over male-female relationships, the two of them marry. Still, they pass on the importance of sisterhood to their daughters, telling them of the story of the goblin man: joining hands, the children would chant, "For there is no friend like a sister / In calm or stormy weather; / To cheer one on the tedious way, / To fetch one if one goes astray, / To lift one if one totters down, / To strengthen whilst one stands." The poem seems to suggest that men are really only needed in order that women might have children (and specifically, daughters)--otherwise, Lizzie and Laura's triumph against the male sex seems rather complete. Additionally, the male sex (via the goblins and their advertising jingle) is associated with an unhealthy economy of buying and selling and delirious consumption which the women successfully resist by reaffirming less "modern" relationships and traditions (sisterhood, and cautionary tales passed down through the generations).  

“The Prince’s Progress” is the story of a prince who takes a long time to get to his waiting bride. When he reaches her finally at the end, she has died (apparently, ten years have passed). Along the way, the Prince encounters a milkmaid enchantress (“Was it milk now, or was it cream? / Was she a maid, or an evil dream?”) from whom he begs a glass of milk. In return, she exacts from him the price of keeping her company for one day. Next, the prince encounters a “land of chasm and rent, a land / of rugged blackness.” Needing shelter, he finds a cave in which an old man is stirring a pot. The old man says he is preparing the elixir of life, and tells the prince he may stay with him if he helped him with the potion. The old man dies before he can take a draught of the potion; the prince takes a phial of it, thinking that his bride would forgive his delay if he brought her the elixir. Finally, the prince nearly drowns on his journey, and is recovered by unknown beings (“Kind hands do and undo, / Kind voices whisper and coo”). When he finally reaches the bride’s palace, he meets with her funeral: she wears poppies in her hair, which has turned from brown to silver.

“Song [‘When I am dead my dearest’]”: In this short poem of sixteen lines, the speaker asks her lover to sing no songs for her after she is dead, negating also the usual tributes of roses or cypresses on her grave. She would rather he be the “green grass above [her]” and charges him to remember or forget, as he will. The second stanza explains that this is because she will not experience earthly sensory experiences such as shadows, rain, or the nightingale and that she too will either forget or remember after death. 

“In an Artist’s Studio” describes how "one face" haunts the canvases of a (male) artist's works. The ending reveals that the face in its various contexts is "Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright; / Not as she is, but as she fills his dream," suggesting the actual woman's separation from the image, which seems subordinated to the life of the male artist. 

“A Better Resurrection” consists of three stanzas, each of which metaphorize the speaker's fallen condition and the need for Jesus Christ to bring her out of this condition. The first stanza says that her heart is like a stone, "numbed too much for hopes and fears" and her life is a "falling leaf" so she exhorts Jesus to "quicken" her. The second stanza says that her life is as barren as a "harvest dwindled to a husk," so she exhorts Jesus to "rise" in her. Finally the speaker imagines herself as a cracked bowl that needs to be repaired by the fire of Christ in order that he may drink from it. The progression suggests that the third metaphor is the most effective--it is more violent, less naturalistic, and more subservient, as the bowl needs to be repaired in order to serve Chris. 

“Christian and Jew: A Dialogue” imagines a Christian speaker describing the various joys in perceiving God while the Jewish speaker fails to perceive these joys. The stanzas alternate between the Christian's joy and the Jew's denial--for example, the first stanza reads, "'Oh happy happy land! / Angels like rushes stand / About the wells of light.' -- 'Alas I have not eyes for this fair sight: / Hold fast my hand.'" Finally the Christian tells the Jew, "Be not afraid, arise, be no more dumb; / Arise, shine / For thy light has come." The solution which the poem offers is that God will "blot out their sin / Let life begin." The poem's overall structure sets up a problematic relation, and answers that God alone (and not the Christian) can do the work of saving the Jew from his sins.

In “The Iniquity of the Fathers upon the Children [Under the Rose],” the speaker is Margaret, an illegitimate child born to an unknown father. She begins by telling that she was born "under the rose," knowing her mother but not her father. Because of the shame of her birth, she was sent away to a village where dwelt "my Lady at the Hall," a well-to-do, unmarried lady who did not stint anyone who needed something from her. When Margaret's old nurse dies, Margaret receives a ring which holds the secret of her birth. Saddened by her old nurse's death, Margaret also begins to waste away, but the lady comes to sit by her bedside. Gradually, Margaret comes to see that the lady is her mother, though this relation must remain unspoken. When Margaret gets better, she becomes a maid (really a "friend, servant, child," she says) at the lady's hall. There, she lives without acknowledging the relation, though in the end she does not blame her mother but curses her father, and makes the radical statement that she'll not own any man's name: "I'll not blot out my shame / With any man's good name / But nameless I stand, / My hand is my own hand, / And nameless as I came go to the dark land." This final line signals that the only "equality" that might be available is that of when everyone goes to their grave, but this is better than submitting to the inequalities perpetuated by society.

“The Lowest Room” contrasts two sisters: the speaker reflects on the heroism and passion of the classical age, having read Homer, and her sister dismisses past heroism and is content with the life of the pious, contemporary Christian wife. The speaker protests that in classical times, "They hated with intenser hate / And loved with fuller love," living life with a greater passion than today. The sister shrugs off these sentiments and answers that "To me our days seem pleasant days, / Our home a haven of pure content...Homer, though greater than his gods, / With rough hewn virtues was sufficed / And rough hewn men: but what are such / To us who learn of Christ?" The poem breaks after the sister hears her name called outside in the garden; presumably it is her lover, and she immediately forgets the subject at hand. After the break, the speaker says that twenty years have passed, her sister now a happy wife. The speaker, in contrast, has accepted a very different fate: "While I? I sat alone and watched; / My lot in life, to live alone, / In mine own world of interests, / Much felt but little shown." In a word, she has accepted the "lowest place." Interestingly, the poem ends on a Christian note, despite the speaker feeling more of a penchant for the classical world, and this Christian note suggests she believes that her version of Christianity to be truer than her sister's conventional version: Yea, sometimes still I lift my heart / To the Archangelic trumpet-burst, / When all deep secrets shall be shown, / And many last be first." She, in the "lowest place" will be first, as God has so promised in Matthew 20:16. 

“A Christmas Carol [In the bleak mid-winter’]” expresses how a "stable place sufficed / To Lord God Almighty Jesus Christ" even though neither Heaven nor Earth can hold or sustain him. This spurs the speaker to wonder what the speaker can offer God. Realizing that what seemed so humble (a stable, or "a breastful of milk" and "a mangerful of hay") was enough, the speaker offers his heart.

“A Birthday” is a short, lighthearted poem in easy tetrameter in which a speaker says that it is the "birthday of [her] life" because "my love is come to me." This seems a conventional love poem, but the imagery suggests a religious meaning. She says that she is "gladder" than a bird with a nest on a watered shoot, an apple-treat bent over with ripe fruit, a rainbow shell on a halcyon sea--all images of nature which seem rather precarious. Instead, the speaker desires to be adorned with clothing which alludes to Christ's sovereignty, which seems far more substantial than the (pagan) images of nature (though not that they aren't also powerful): "Raise me a dais of silk and down; / Hang it with vair and purple dyes..."  

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