n examining Christina Rossetti's religious "divergence from the Pre-Raphaelite type," Edmund Gosse begins where most modern critics end when they attempt to deal with the issue. Such critics follow the pattern established by W.J. Courthope, who in 1872 wrote a lengthy and historically significant essay entitled "The Latest Development in Literary Poetry: Swinburne, Rossetti, Morris." Christina Rossetti, whose first two volumes of poetry had by this time been long in print, is conspicuous here by her absence. Courthope excludes her from his treatment of this school of "literary poets" because in describing the common characteristics of Swinburne, Rossetti, and Morris he focuses upon their "antipathy to society" the "atmosphere of ... materialistic feeling [that] pervades the poetry of all three," their "atheism," their use of love as a theme with an "esoteric signification" and the poetic representation of beloved women not so much in the tradition of "the sainted lady of Dante," but rather "as the models of the painter's studio" ("Latest Development in Literary Poetry," 63). Courthope altogether ignores discussion of verbal play, the play with literary and iconographic traditions, and the experimental, often radical poetics that characterize Pre-Raphaelite poetry, especially that of Swinburne and Christina Rossetti.
Courthope's description of Pre-Raphaelite poetry excludes the work of Christina Rossetti because of his emphasis on the brethren's clearly subversive or antiorthodox traits. He perceives them as a disquieting avant-garde. Although, as we shall see, social subversiveness (but of different kinds) is a characteristic common to both Christina Rossetti's verse and that of the other poets, even an emphasis upon the less superficial and more essential traits of Pre-Raphaelitism I have already discussed would have compelled Courthope to number Christina Rossetti, along with Swinburne, Morris, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, among these new "literary" [36/37] poets (see, for instance, the persuasive case McGann makes for such a view (NER, 241-47). Beyond the caustic social criticism Courthope apparently ignored in Christina Rossetti's work, many of its formal characteristics and moral arguments can be perceived — and indeed were perceived by some of her contemporaries — as a manifestation of new, avant-garde tendencies arising in Victorian poetry during the second half of the century.
The distinctive characteristics of Pre-Raphaelite poetry were, as I have shown, clearly described by their contemporaries and have been further cataloged by modern students of the movement. In addition to Hunt, see especially Lang (preface to The Pre-Raphaelites); Fredeman (introduction to "Pre-Raphaelitsm and "The Pre-Raphaelites"); Buckley (introduction to The Pre-Raphaelites); and Rees (introduction to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1-16). More important, however, than any mere listing of the components of Pre-Raphaelitism, at least to the student of nineteenth-century cultural change, is developing an awareness of the special and highly self-conscious ways in which the Pre-Raphaelites simultaneously looked backward and forward in the framework of literary history. They revived aesthetic precepts they perceived as common to medieval and Romantic modes of imaginative expression. In revising these, they prefigured subsequent (aestheticist and modernist) modes that built upon and emerged from the revisionist poems the Pre-Raphaelites themselves generated. The Rossettis, Morris, and Swinburne thus constitute an avant-garde not primarily because they intentionally subverted contemporary values, but rather because their subversiveness resulted from a compulsion to disregard the topical so that they might pursue a transcendent order of beauty and experience which was figured in the phenomenal world and recorded in medieval and Romantic literature, but which resisted the constraints and limitations that any predominant concern with the immediate and the topical imposed.
What finally distinguishes the Pre-Raphaelite poets — as an avant-garde rebelling through revisionist reworkings of particular traditions in the artistic and literary past — from their contemporaries, is the timelessness of their work. Their obsession with mutability largely enforces upon them a withdrawal from active life and from the moral, social, political, and "modernist" psychological issues with which the work of their literary contemporaries was preoccupied. These issues were central, for instance, to the "novels with a purpose" of the day; to the poetry of alienation written by Arnold, Browning, and Tennyson, who often used settings from the past to facilitate commentaries upon present-day issues; and, of course, to the even more irrepressibly topical prose works of Ruskin, Carlyle, Arnold, and — in the moral and religious spheres — Newman. Although almost all of the major works written by these canonical writers have the power to transcend their topical subject matter, they frequently originated from contemporaneous concerns and events in a way that work by the Pre-Raphaelites does not appear to have done.
[37/38] In a surprising number of ways the poetry of Christina Rossetti, unlike the work of these writers, fits the avant-garde pattern that generally characterizes Pre-Raphaelite art and poetry and that the aesthetes, beginning with Pater and extending through Yeats, seized upon as providing an essential background to and basis for their own work. Like Walter Hamilton and John Dixon Hunt, Renato Pogglioli acknowledges without complication the evolution of Pre-Raphaelitism (as an avant-garde movement) into aestheticism, noting simply "the message handed down by the Pre-Raphaetite Brotherhood to the aesthetic movement at the fin de sièle" (Theory of the Avant-Garde, 226-27). As we shall see in chapters 4 and 5, however, Rossetti's poetry does, even through its avant-garde strategy of withdrawal, obliquely provide a critique of the false values and false premises of topical work by her contemporaries. Moreover, the religious element of Rossetti's poetry, rather than conflicting with its avant-garde tendencies, uniquely contributes to them. Herbert Sussman quite correctly argues that "paradoxically it was the Ruskinian aim of reviving sacred art and restoring the high moral position of the artist that thrust the [Pre-Raphaelite] Brotherhood, within the cultural situation of mid-Victorian England, into modernist strategies and an avant-garde artistic role." Sussman further maintains that "it is the continuation of these avant-garde methods and of an avant-garde position, rather than similarities of style and subject matter" that constitutes "the essential link" between the two generations of Pre-Raphaelites ("Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood," 7). It was, of course, Christina and Dante Gabriel — as poets of the first brotherhood and as exemplars of avant-garde aesthetic values and poetic procedures — who provided models for Morris, Swinburne, and the more peripheral second-generation poets. Perceptions of the link between the sacramental, Ruskinian aims of the first brotherhood and the ostensibly aestheticist predispositions of members of the second brotherhood are reinforced when we recall that, before their conversion to art by Rossetti, both William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones had intended to become priests.
If we keep clearly in mind the paradoxical relations between the revivalist, sacramental, and medievalist concerns of the Pre-Raphaelites on the one hand, and their innovative, avant-garde stylistic and formal procedures on the other, we can more fully understand the extent to which the work of Christina Rossetti is truly Pre-Raphaelite. Not only does her verse have in common with other Pre-Raphaelite poetry the characteristics cited by her contemporary reviewers, but it also pursues formal and stylistic novelty, as is particularly clear to modem readers of poems like Goblin Market. (As Sussman explains, "the Brotherhood self-consciously engaged in the familiar avant-garde strategy of defamiliarization through radical stylistic innovation" in order to "restore intensity to the perception of familiar subject matter" [ibid., 8]). Indeed, one crucial paradox of Pre-Raphaelitism — its use of tradition to create an art novel for its time — is as visible in the styles the poets experiment with and the poetic forms they employ as in their subject matter. (The other paradox crucial to the movement, as I have indicated, is its use of the sensuous to figure the noumenal.) While introducing new, symbolist stylistic techniques and reversing or countering their readers' expectations through the use of ex- [38/39] tremely intense imagery or diffuse syntax, the Pre-Raphaelite poets also assiduously attempt to revive archaic literary forms such as the ballad and the sonnet sequence.
Such procedural dichotomies are, of course, conspicuous in the work of Christina Rossetti as well as in the poems of Morris, Swinburne, and her brother. Sussman notes the stylistic innovativeness of Swinburne and Morris but not their revival of old forms ("Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood" 8-9). Rossetti's sonnet sequences, Monna Innominata and Later Life, and her numerous ballads exist in tension with her formally novel children's poems and works like Goblin Market. Her intertextual use of traditional forms is often revisionist and self-reflexive as well. The extremely self-conscious artistry of her sonnets, for instance, suggests that she, like her brother, believed that the very form of the love sonnet had, as its tradition developed, acquired an aura, an ambience, and a symbolic value that might be used perceptibly to redirect and even subvert the values traditionally associated with it. In her experiments with form, however, Christina Rossetti surpasses her brother and approaches the radical innovativeness of Swinburne; on this subject, see Bump, "Hopkins, Christina Rossetti, and Pre-Raphaelitism," 5-6. In practice both of these Pre-Raphaelite poets might be seen to foreshadow a precept basic to the aestheticist poets of the 1890s and first expressed in radical form by Walter Pater in 1873. In his essay "The School of Georgione," Pater asserts a vital tenet of art for art's sake: "That the mere matter of a poem, for instance, its subject, namely, its given incidents or situation ... should be nothing without the form, the spirit, of the handling, that this form, this mode of handling should become an end in itself, should penetrate every part of the matter: this is what all art constantly strives after, and achieves in different degrees" (106).
In 1893, the year before Christina Rossetti died, Edmund Gosse made a critical pronouncement that reflects the aestheticist vogue of admiration for the purely formal accomplishments of her poetry. By that time Gosse's exalted regard for her was shared by many prominent poets and critics, among them A.C. Swinburne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Richard La Gallienne, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Symons, Lionel Johnson, and Theodore Watts-Dunton. Gosse described Rossetti as a writer
severely true to herself, an artist of conscientiousness as high as her skill is exquisite.... [She is] one of the most perfect poets of the age — not one of the most powerful, of course, nor one of the most epoch-making, but ... one of the most perfect." Gosse insists that she is "a writer to whom we may not unreasonably expect that students of English literature in the twenty-fourth century may look back as the critics of Alexandria did toward Sappho and toward Erinna. [211-12]
Almost two decades later, Ford Madox Ford went so far as to canonize Christina Rossetti at the expense not only of her brother, but also of Arnold, Tennyson, and the Brownings. Ford [39/40] concluded definitively, "Christina Rossetti seems to us to be the most valuable poet that the Victorian Age produced." (Critical Attitude, 179).
Such commentaries by Gosse and Ford demonstrate the advancement of Christina Rossetti's reputation since her first systematic sallies as a poet into the public sphere. By 1859, with the help of Dante Rossetti, she had begun quietly searching for a commercial press to publish a volume of her poems. One of Dante Rossetti's first steps was to submit them to John Ruskin for evaluation. Ruskin's stodgy response is still notorious, but it is of special interest because, as we have seen, the aesthetic modes of Christina Rossetti's verse are largely Romantic and typological: precisely Ruskinian, in fact. In November 1859 Ruskin wrote back to Dante Rossetti that his sister's poems
are full of beauty and power. But no publisher — I am deeply grieved to know this — would take them, so full are they of quaintness and other offences. Irregular measure (introduced to my great regret in its chief willfulness by Coleridge) is the calamity of modern poetry. The Iliad, the Divina Commedia, the Aeneid, the whole of Spenser, Milton, Keats are written without taking a single license or violating the common ear for metre; your sister should exercise herself in the severest commonplace of metre until she can write as the public likes. Then if she puts in her observation and passion all will become precious. But she must have the Form first. [Rossetti, Ruskin, 258-59]
That Ruskin did not find the aesthetic underpinnings of Rossetti's verse familiar is both startling and intriguing, although his typically condescending attitude toward women may well have prevented him from looking beneath the surfaces of her poems. Further, apart from Goblin Market, we cannot know which poems he was given to read. As Janet Camp Troxell has observed, the only previous explanation for Ruskin's remarks "is that Ruskin felt it was damaging to Gabriel to have another Rossetti in the market" (Three Rossettis, 30-31). Similarly, Ruskin's rigid, traditional standards of poetic excellence did not allow him to appreciate the formal perfection of Rossetti's poetry that Gosse, Swinburne, Hopkins, and Wilde, for instance, so greatly admired. Nor is it surprising that the flexibility and pluralism of post-structuralist directions in critical discourse nearly one hundred years after their time have begun to reinvigorate an interest in the formal experimentations, the semiotic play, and the prosodic sophistication of Rossetti's poetry. The trend was begun (albeit grudgingly) by Stuart Curran with his 1971 acknowledgment of Rossetti as "an introspective and serious craftsman." Curran especially admired her "willingness to grapple with form" and "her most consistently remarkable poetic attribute," her "facility in rhyming and fit [40/41] ting thought into poetic form without a trace of awkwardness" ("Lyric Voice of Christina Rossetti," 289, 293). Only since 1979, however, has intensive formal and prosodic analysis of Rossetti's poetry begun to enhance our perceptions of her technical virtuosity. Crump's edition of her poems and Jerome McGann's description of Rossetti as "a great craftswoman" have led the way (NER, 240).
Subsequent commentators have disclosed and analyzed with special clarity Rossetti's careful use of anaphora, the density of her language, the typically "dialogic form" of her lyrics, and her highly sophisticated metrics, including the use of "restricted phrasal emphasis, long vowel sounds, heavy caesuras, tolling regularity of beat" and "displaced beats" (See especially Blake, Love and the Woman Question, 3-25; and Connor, "Language and Repetition."). To these techniques must be added her calculated uses of abnormal syntax, frequent punning, deliberately archaic verbal and pronomial forms, intentional anticlimax, verbal repetition as musical (and thematic) leitmotiv, paradox, oxymoron, dialectical progressions, and rhetorical questioning. The "perfect surfaces" of her poems, so often acknowledged by critics, result from these techniques, but so do perfect thematic, psychological, and literary-historical or parodic "depths."
Most technical analysis of Rossetti's poetry has been conducted in specific thematic contexts and in the service of broader arguments about the ideological bases of her poetry (McGann), about the relative position of her work in the Victorian canon (Wilde and Rees), or about her position as a mediator of the Christian Victorian woman's resignation to mutability, unfulfillment, and the need for patient endurance (Rosenblum, Metmin, Blake, and Gilbert). Technical analysis of her poems outside of such thematic contexts, however, can yield important conclusions about her frequent prosodic strategies, their aesthetic grounds, their origins, purposes, and formal effects. The primacy of artistry and the subordination of theme in Rossetti's poetry should already be clear from chapter 1. The technical analysis of three neglected but representative poems that follows leads to corollary conclusions. "Autumn" is a short lyric about the transience of love; "Songs in a Cornfield" is a 117-line dialogic poem on the same subject; and "An Old World Thicket" is a long descriptive poem whose significant, largely epistemological focus is the relations between the self and the external world. All three poems embody Rossetti's typical formal and prosodic "irregularities" and experimentations, so admired by Gosse and disparaged by Ruskin.
Rossetti wrote numerous seasonal poems, including two entitled "Autumn," one in 1853 and one in 1858. Although both are prosodically experimental, the earlier poem not only shows closer attention to her ideal [41/42] of poetic "conciseness," but it also demonstrates more effort at "filing and polishing," as she described her work to revise poems for The Prince's progress. (W M. Rossett, Rossetti Papers, 77).
Hope and Fear together:
In the Autumn weather.
For a friend
Even Care is pleasant:
When Fear doth end
Hope is no more present:
Autumn silences the turtle-dove: —
In blank Autumn who could speak of love?
Readers of this poem may immediately observe the work's dominant irony — that its deeply serious theme, the death of love, seems counteracted by the lightness of its rhymes and meter. But that apparent theme is also belied by the poem's close on the accentually stressed, masculine rhyme-word "love." The bottom-heaviness of the two-stanza shape reinforces the effect, as does the irregular metrical alteration between trochaic and iambic feet: the metrical flights of the first stanza of this poem about mutability are slowed almost to stasis by the increased fine lengths of stanza two and the comparative metrical regularity of the final couplet. Transience is artistically transformed into permanence, as is so frequently the case in Rossetti's verse. Complementarily, the archaisms "flieth," "dieth," and "doth" deliberately ground the poem historically, in effect undercutting the present tense of the poem but also extending its assertions backward in time, thus making them timeless or perpetual.
"Autumn" forcefully realizes Rossetti's ideal of conciseness. The absence of background information (about the speaker and his or her situation), as well as the lack of any logical and causal connections or explanations, invites projection and deduction as a primary mode of reader response. But the high level of prosodic and lexical control demands a focus on the universal rather than the personal, on the "silences" and "blanks" of love that finally celebrate its inexorable power rather than resignedly lamenting its inevitable death. That is, partly by means of the concluding couplet's weight, a simultaneously formal and thematic paradox emerges. The poem itself gives "silences" and "blank" love a new and poignant voice as well as [42/43] a clear and visible form. The articulated absence generates a powerful presence, reviving the cares, hopes, and fears of love's past springs — its sources and seasons. Not to speak of love is impossible, as the form and the words of the poem demonstrate, thus answering its closing rhetorical question. The rhyme of the concluding couplet constitutes a deceptive act of closure. The speaker's (and poem's) refusal to be blank and silent suggests that Care, Hope, Fear, and Love itself exist in a perpetually autumnal state of dissolution, but because Fear of losing Love (the inspiration for art) never ends, Hope of its continuance or recovery is always present.
Like "Autumn," "Songs in a Cornfield" discusses transient love, but this later poem displays Rossetti's extraordinary virtues as a craftswoman even more strikingly than "Autumn," and indeed as fully as any other poem she composed, including Goblin Market. Its metrical complexities so impressed Sir G.A. Macfarren that he set the poem to music as a cantata during Rossetti's lifetime (Works, 484). From one of Christina's letters to Dante Rossetti during the preparation of The Prince's Proqress and Other poems, we learn that both he and Swinburne admired the poem. In this letter Rossetti claims "Songs in a Cornfield," finally, as "one of my own favorites." Presumably, therefore, it faithfully embodies her highest aesthetic values. It is also one of the very heavily revised poems of her 1866 volume (Rossetti Papers, 88). The work was initially composed in 1864 and presents a cycle of unanswered love "calls." But for publication the second of the original "songs" in the poem was excised and replaced (with what in the published version appears as Rachel's song), and the final twelve lines of the original work were deleted altogether, not only making the conclusion more powerfully climactic but also making the entire poem self-reflexive.
"Songs in a Cornfield," like so many of Rossetti's poems (including "Three Nuns," Goblin Market, and "A Triad"), is wholly "dialogic" in Mikhail Bakhtin's sense of the word. Not only is the poem comprised of an interaction among the voices of four singers who sing three songs (only one in unison) and an objective narrative voice, but the very language and meter of these voices are heterogeneous and nonhegemonic. The poem presents multiple perspectives on mutable love. A further interaction — among resonances of appropriated texts from Tennyson, Keats, and Swinburne — along with a subtle interchange among complementary emblem systems accomplishes a destabilizing effect. That effect is replicated in the poem's metrical gymnastics and echoes the poem's themes of loss and abandonment.
The triadic and symmetrical structure of this poem begins with a description of Marian's sorrowful questions about her unreturning lover. It [43/44] concludes with a speculative fantasy of his return after her death; the final stanza ironically employs the same rhyme words as the first stanza. After the narrative introduction to Marian's plight, May, Rachel, and Lettice sing a monitory song about devotion to "a false false love." The middle section of the poem (ll. 57-85), as these reapers "rest from toil," recounts Rachel's "second strain," an emblematic and potentially mythological lament at the departure of the "sunny," "wise," and "good" swallow. (Rachel's song is reminiscent of both the concluding stanza of Keats's "To Autumn" and Swinburne's "Itylus" which was published the same year as The Prince's Progress.) Next "listless Marian" sings, "like one who hopes and grieves," an elegiac song for the dead (herself? her beloved?). The final brief stanza envisions the return of the beloved, who will "not find her at all, / He may tear his curling hair / Beat his breast and call." His spectral appearance provides another questioning voice, disoriented and disappointed, which will remain unanswered.
In the themes and in the prosody of this poem there is no security, only discontinuity, dislocation, disorientation, displacement, and anomie, as we see from the first stanza:
A song in a cornfield
Where corn begins to fall,
Where reapers are reaping,
Reaping one, reaping all.
Sing pretty Lettice,
Sing Rachel, sing May;
Only Marian cannot sing
While her sweetheart's away.
The first line clearly echoes the poem's title, but with the destabilizing substitution of singleness for plurality, isolation for prospective choral unity. This effect is reinforced immediately by the irregularity of the iambic trimeter line, and later by the absence of any continuity or complementariness among the three songs as well as by the contradictory fact that Marian finally does sing. In the second, historically retrospective stanza, an irregular, breathless, jog-trot rhythm underscores Marian's sense of desperation, an effect that is only exacerbated when the narrative voice settles into aphoristic imperatives, parallel structures, and regular meter: "Let him haste to joy / Lest he lag for sorrow."
A ground of certainty does emerge in the triune song of May, Rachel, and Lettice, with its use of anaphora and refrain, its predictable meter, [44/45] dependable rhymes, and its perfect symmetry. The three maidens confidently recommend taking "wheat to your bosom, / But not a false false love." The alternating iambic trimeter and tetrameter lines describing nature's and the reapers' repose at noon seem similarly comforting, with their alternating masculine rhymes and lulling sibilants. But the mood changes abruptly with Rachel's song of the swallow.
"There goes the swallow —
Could we but follow!
Hasty swallow stay,
Point us out the way;
Look back swallow, turn back swallow, stop swallow.
"There went the swallow —
Too late to follow:
Lost our note of way,
Lost our chance today;
Good bye swallow, sunny swallow, wise swallow.
"After the swallow
All sweet things follow:
All go their way,
Only we must stay,
Must not follow; good bye swallow, good swallow."
The substance of Rachel's song recalls the violence and ruin that characterize Procne and Philomela's story; here, moreover, even after Procne's metamorphosis as an immortal bird and potential guide to transcendence, the swallow is unreachable. The swallow's role as an emblem of loss and inevitability is onomatopoeically drawn out by the hollow internal rhymes and the extended line lengths at the end of each stanza, and by the nearly spondaic finality of the bird's name itself, which is preceded by an irregular, often spondaic five-foot meter.
The stanzaic and metrical pattern is different and disorienting once again in Marian's song, with its masculine rhyming quatrains and truncated last lines.
"Deeper than the hail can smite,
Deeper than the frost can bite,
Deep asleep thro' day and night,
Our delight. [45/46]
"Now thy sleep no pang can break,
No tomorrow bid thee wake,
Not our sobs who sit and ache
For thy sake.
"Is it dark or tight below?
Oh but is it cold like snow?
Dost thou feel the green things grow
Fast or slow?
"Is it warm or cold beneath,
Oh but is it cold like death?
Cold like death, without a breath,
Cold like death?"
The play with meter and with anaphora here is masterful. With the beginning and end rhymes of the first stanza and its regular iambs, Rossetti introduces a chant that culminates with the echoed syntactical patterning of the third and fourth stanzas and the conclusiveness of radical repetitions in the fourth. The harsh anomie of "cold like death" is echoed in the two final lines of the poem ("He may tear his curling hair, / Beat his breast and call"). These come as a sharp interruption of the lulling anaphora (expressed once again in multiple sibilants) of the last stanza's first six lines--three sets of syntactically identical conditional statements. The poem's fundamentalty dialogic mode of discourse ironically emphasizes the absence of communication between lovers and among maiden friends. The reader's sensitivity to their isolation from one another because of conflicting values, expectations, and desires culminates with the poem's final, infinitely self-echoing monosyllable, "call."
Unlike "Autumn" and "Songs in a Cornfield," but like most of Rossetti's devotional poems, "An Old World Thicket" is comparatively regular in form and meter. Its innovation lies, rather, in the subtlety and ingeniousness of its larger structure. It is a colorful poem, dense with striking images that accumulate symbolic weight and typological resonances only with the last three stanzas, whose Christian iconography is unmistakable; in them a "patriarchal ram" leads "meek mild" sheep "Journeying together toward the sunlit west." By this point "heavenly harmony" has been restored to the speaker's previously anguished spirit.
"An Old World Thicket" is a thirty-six stanza, elegiac poem of episte- [46/47] mological and teleological exploration. Like Wordsworth's "Intimations Ode," this work traces the dialectical interaction between the stunning beauty of external nature and the "rage," "despair," and "weariness" of the solipsistic and suicidal speaker who, after stanza eleven, attempts in vain to close out nature's "jubilee," Very early in the poem she describes the visual and auditory spectacle of the ubiquitous forest birds:
Such birds they seemed as challenged each desire;
Like spots of azure heaven upon the wing,
Like downy emeralds that alight and sing,
Like actual coals on fire,
Like anything they seemed, and everything.
Such mirth they made, such warblings and such chat,
With tongue of music in a well-tuned beak,
They seemed to speak more wisdom than we speak
, To make our music flat
And all our subtlest reasonings wild or weak.
Their meat was nought but flowers like butterflies,
With berries coral-coloured or like gold;
Their drink was only dew, which blossoms hold
Deep where the honey lies;
Their wings and tails were lit by sparkling eyes.
Such universal sound of lamentation
I heard and felt, fain not to feel or hear;
Nought else there seemed but anguish far and near;
Nought else but all creation
Moaning and groaning wrung by pain or fear, [47/48]
Shuddering in the misery of its doom:
My heart then rose a rebel against light,
Scouring all earth and heaven and depth and height,
Ingathering wrath and gloom,
Ingathermg wrath to wrath and night to night.
And bleating, one or other, many or few,
Journeying together toward the sunlit west;
Mild face by face, and woolly breast by breast,
Patient, sun-brightened too,
Still journeying toward the sunset and their rest.
Although it closes with a focus on Christian typology, the poem is deliberately intertextual with its pervasively embedded verbal and thematic echoes of Keats, Wordsworth, and Tennyson. But as with all of Rossetti's revisionist poems, the author appropriates the language and themes of her precursors only to redirect them and provide a retrospective commentary upon the values their poems project. (See chapter five for a full discussion of the intertextual qualities of Rossetti's poetry.) Rossetti's poem begins in a secular, Keatsian vein, echoing the "Ode to a Nightingale" Awake or sleeping (for I know not which) / I was or was not mazed within a wood." It adopts and adapts lush Keatsian and early Tennysonian hedonistic image patterns. (Stanza ten reminds us of "The Palace of Art" as inescapably as stanza fourteen invokes "The Lotos-Eaters.") But Rossetti concludes her poem by rejecting the vocabularies and the secular epiphanies of Keats and early Tennyson, as well as the pantheistic revelations of Wordsworth, in favor of a quietly symbolic, traditionally Christian apocalypse; she leads her precursors, as it were, out of the wilderness of Romantic speculation.
Rossetti's traditional Christian solution to the Romantic and Victorian literary problem of alienation from nature and to the more characteristically Victorian problem of despair at life's meaninglessness is accomplished in formally unremarkable, iambic pentameter, five-line stanzas that contain a fourth tetrameter line. The stanzas use four different a-b rhyme [48/49] schemes that alternate irregularly. Just as the thirty-six stanza structure of the complete poem suggests trinitarian concerns, however, so the use of combinations of five in the meter and stanzaic form may reflect Rossetti's play with medieval numerology, in which five is perceived as a "perfect" number (Christ's wounds) or the "quintessence." Further, if the poem's title and the speaker's situation ultimately present a revisionist perspective on Eden and refer to mans postlapsarian loss of direction, this poem's pentastiches may be seen to allude formally to Israel's (mankind's) initial recovery of direction by the end of the Pentateuch. That Christina Rossetti indulged in such formal puns is apparent in many poems, most notably in the fourteen-sonnet Monna Innominata, which she designated a "sonnet of sonnets."
Locally and generally the structure of this poem, with its central image patterns of sound and sight, is dialectical rather than dialogic. From the opening words ("Awake or sleeping"), contraries--and oxymorons — pro-liferate. These include oppositions between despair and hope, meaningless natural phenomena and meaningful symbol, external and internal, birth and death, sun and moon, hope and fear, silence and sound, mourning and jubilee, depth and height, peace and strife, light and darkness, strenqth and weakness. But just as inner and outer music are harmonized after stanza twenty-eight, and as the visual becomes visionary at "glorious" sunset, so all dialectical oppositions are implicitly synthesized. The movement of the poem as a whole is from the external to the internal, but finally to the eternal that incorporates — and reconciles — both.
A Wordsworthian marriage of mind and nature thus occurs by the end of the poem, where imagery of the golden sunset symbolizes not only the unity of the external world, but also the unificaton of the internal with the external:
Each twig was tipped with gold, each leaf was edged
And veined with gold from the gold-flooded west;
Each mother-bird, and mate-bird, and unfledged
Nestling, and curious nest,
Displayed a gilded moss or beak or breast. (Poems, 2:128)
Without, within me, music seemed to be;
Something not music, yet most musical,
Silence and sound in heavenly harmony;
At length a pattering fall
Of feet, a bell, and bleatings, broke through all.
Then I looked up. The wood lay in a glow
From golden sunset and from ruddy sky;
The sun had stooped to earth though once so high;
Had stooped to earth, in slow
Warm dying loveliness brought near and low
Each water drop made answer to the light,
Lit up a spark and showed the sun his face;
Soft purple shadows paved the grassy space
And crept from height to height,
From height to loftier height crept up apace.
While opposite the sun a gazing moon
Put on his glory for her coronet,
Kindling her luminous coldness to its noon,
As his great splendour set;
One only star made up her train as yet. (Poems, 2:127-28)
Just as the poem echoes, redirects, and "marries" earlier, Romantic texts, so the objects and elements of nature in these stanzas and the one that follows mirror, echo, redirect, and marry one another in muted apocalypse, The divine text of nature becomes a paradigm not only for the text of this poem but also for the cumulative texts of all (Romantic) poets seeking revelaton of ultimate realities. Similarly, the "text" (lesson) of this poem is echoed in the prosody of its stanzas, which are dense with intro- [50/51] active end rhymes, internal rhymes, assonance, and consonance. The poem's multifarious oppositions are undercut and unified finally by the musical harmonies in which they are expressed.
"An Old World Thicket" is a subtle showpiece of Rossetti's characteristic technical procedures (and her thematic concerns), but it is also an embodiment of her fundamentally Ruskinian aesthetics, in which Typical and Vital Beauty interact. This work, like many of her poems, illustrates the basis of Rossetti's aesthetic thought in the convergence of Ruskinian art theory, Tractarian and medievalist poetics, and the typological habits of mind basic to all of these. Any detailed analysis of the apparent theoretical grounds of Christina Rossetti's aesthetics and poetic practice might well begin by observing the ways in which the two dominant metaphors (music and golden sunlight) in "An Old World Thicket" evoke the central tenets of Ruskinian aesthetics, as well as the typological mindset underlying those aesthetics and much mid-Victorian thought on poetry, painting, and theology.
Early in Seek and Find, in a context obviously appropriate to analysis of the thematic structure of "An Old World Thicket" Rossetti discusses the ordinarily deficient visual capacities of man, which can be improved only with the help of the "eyes" of faith:
Faith accepts, love contemplates and is nourished by, every word, act, type, of God. The Sun, to our unaided senses the summit of His visible creation, is pre-eminently the symbol of God Himself: of God the giver, cherisher, cheerer of life; the luminary of all perceptive beings; the attractive centre of our system. The Sun, worshipped under many names and by divers nations, is truly no more than our fellow-creature in the worship and praise of our common Creator; yet as His symbol it none the less conveys to us a great assurance of hope. (sf,34)
Not only does this passage serve as an obvious gloss on Rossetti's poem, but it also reveals her characteristic concern with symbolic or typological correspondences between phenomena, on the one hand, and "moral" (or theological) interpretation of them, on the other. This concern is ubiquitous in Rossetti's poetry and prose, and although it is too pervasively Victorian to derive exclusively from any single writer or text, her readings in Ruskin certainly would have provided a clear-minded, authoritative theoretical grounding for her lifelong poetic practice. [51/52]
Last modified 24 June 2007