uch poems as "A Bride Song" and "A Birthday" explore comparatively sanguine possibilities for attaining an ideal, wholly fulfilling love relationship in the real world. But close analysis of the poems exposes the ways in which all such possibilities ultimately prove suspect. Even so, these poems exemplify the most optimistic, albeit the smallest, group of Christina Rossetti's love poems. More dominant in her collected Complete Poems are ballads and lyrics that depict disillusionment and betrayal in love. I have already presented a full discussion of the various possible readings of "Maude Clare," a central poem in this context. But we can also classify as works in this category — at least in their obtrusive aspects — Rossetti's two major narrative poems, Goblin Market and The Prince's Progress, the titular showpieces of her first two volumes. Along with these can be included many minor lyrics such as "Light Love," "An Apple-Gathering," and "Grown and Flown." The women in love who appear in these poems are betrayed — at a number of levels and with varying effects — by false [112/113] ideals, by false lovers, or, more simply, by what is in the background of betrayal by false ideals and false lovers: innocence, that is, innocence as a delusive obliviousness to mutability.
The effects of disappointed expectations and heightened consciousness upon Rossetti's victims of love vary a good deal. Some, like the lover in "Sister Maude" become vituperative. Some, like the bride and the would-be bride in The Prince's Progress and "Light Love" die or expect to die. Others are left bewildered by what amounts to the rape of their illusions, as in "An Apple-Gathering" and "Grown and Flown." Yet others, like Laura in Goblin Market and the speaker of "Twice," ultimately benefit from their experience and from their renunciation of illusions and earthly ideals. Much like the speaker in the Monna Innominata, they are led toward higher, more spiritual ideals of love (in one reading of Goblin Market, Lizzie is a Christ figure). By means of their suffering in love and their martyrdom to false ideals of love or pleasure, they are saved from the world.
Goblin Market and The Princes Progress, confront the issue of betrayed expectations in love from different perspectives. As an anonymous reviewer commented in the Athenaecum in 1866: "'The Prince's Progress," like the 'Goblin Market' . . . is an allegory, and an allegory, moreover, illustrating a similar idea. In both works the argument is the power of temptation to beguile man from the worthy and earnest work of life. In 'Goblin Market' the temptations are resisted and overcome, — in 'The Prince's Progress' they triumph" (Review of The Prince's Progress, 824). Moreover, in the case of Goblin Market the central temptations are sensory and come to be equated with sexual pleasures; in The Prince's Progress only one of the two central temptations that prevent the realization of an implied ideal of married bliss is sexual; the other is, ironically, a potion that promises the perpetuation of an ideal married life, an "Elixir of Life." Underlying both these poems that depict betrayal and expose illusions about love, however, is Christina Rossetti's highly aesthetic consciousness, which, like the voice in the second stanza of "A Birthday," is concerned with surmounting the inevitable betrayal of love's transient pleasures or our exalted expectations of love by memorializing such pleasures and expectations in art.
Goblin Market and The Prince's Progress, moreover, constitute formal and thematic assaults upon the androcentric tradition of the romantic lyric; see Margaret Homans, "'Syllables of Velvet'." Not only do these narrative poems eschew the lyric form in which love ideals are typically presented by male speakers who aspire to fulfillment through union with their beloveds, but they also expose the corrupt (commercial and hypocritically materialist or socially prescribed) founda-[113/114]tions upon which such false ideals are erected. Further, they palpably demonstrate the ways in which women are perceived as objects or mere ciphers by the patriarchal ideologies of romantic love that pretend to idolize women and desire union with them. These poems are, therefore, powerful social critiques of a system of romantic values that began in medieval France and had reached its institutionalized apogee in Victorian England with its apotheosis of middle-class women as Angels in the House. (For backgrounds to the evolution of this ideology, see Rougement, L'Amour et L'Occident, and Rabine, Reading the Romantic Heroine.)
Presented in Goblin Market is an exemplary instance of betrayed expectations that the sensual delights of this world can be enjoyed with impunity. In fact, indulgence in them is shown to be dangerous and sometimes fatal. Such delights are insistently associated in the poem with love (or at least lust) by means of its much-discussed use of sexually charged metaphors and by the fatal effect of these transient pleasures on Laura and on Lizzie's friend, Jeanie, who "should have been a bride." Jeanie died from her craving for the once-sampled Goblin fruits — premature surrogates for the delights of the marriage bed (critical approaches to the poem). "For joys brides hope to have" Jeanie "Fell sick and died / In her gay prime" (Poems, 1:19; "Gay" was a familiar Victorian term applied to prostitutes). Following this pattern, Laura succumbs to the attractions of the Goblin fruit ("'You cannot think what figs / My teeth have met in'") and afterwards languishes "in a passionate yearning." She "gnashed her teeth for baulked desire, and wept / As if her heart would break." However, unlike Jeanie, Laura is saved by Lizzie's painful resistance to the temptations of passion symbolized by the fruit. Lizzie appears to be intuitively aware that exalted expectations of passionate pleasure are undermined by real experience, and she has renounced such pleasure. Her knowledge is reinforced by the fate of Jeanie and her sister, and she is almost martyred by her own refusal to succumb. When she seeks medicinal Goblin fruit for Laura, the Goblin men
. . .trod and hustled her,
Elbowed and jostled her,
Clawed with their nails,
Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking,
Tore her gown and soiled her stocking,
Twitched her hair out by the roots,
Stamped upon her tender feet,
Held her hands and squeezed their fruits
Against her mouth to make her eat. [Poems, 1:21; 114/115]
With the residue of resistance "syrup[ping] all her face," Lizzie returns to Laura as a Christ figure, symbolically introducing Laura to a new spiritual direction for her passionate impulses, one that will in all senses save her from the betrayal that inevitably follows upon false expectations of fulfillment through sensual pleasures:
"Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me:
For your sake I have braved the glen
And had to do with goblin merchant men," [Poems, 1:23]
The moral tag at the end of this poem — "there is no friend like a sister" reminds us of Coleridge's similarly understated and ironic conclusion to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a poem that parallels Rossetti's in its narrative treatment of the experience of fall and redemption, but also in its creation of a fantasy world that focuses the reader's attention more powerfully on the aesthetic and psychological experience the poem generates than on the moral precepts it is intended to convey." Such resemblances between Goblin Market and Coleridge's Rime were observed by early readers. For instance, Mrs. Charles Eliot Norton, in her review of Rossetti's first volume of poems, asserts that Goblin Market may "vie with Coleridge's 'Ancient Mariner', ... for the vivid and wonderful power by which things unreal and mystic are made to blend and link themselves with the everyday images and events of common life" ("'The Goblin Market,'" 404). In both poems such precepts seem, at best, anticlimactic. One anonymous reviewer, despite the moralizing conclusion, pronounced Goblin Market to be "purely and completely a work of art." (Review of Goblin Market, 230). It is one whose voluptuous imagery, rather than its moral tag, remains permanently fixed in the reader's mind.
s Prince's Progress, a long narrative poem that introduces Christina Rossetti's second volume of verse, is a sequel to Goblin Market, and it, too, concerns false expectations of love. These expectations belong not only to the characters involved, but also, to an extent, to the reader of this quest romance whose events undercut the tradition from which it emerges. Rather than focusing, as Goblin Market does, on its characters' betrayed expectations of sensual delight, The Prince's Progress deals primarily with more philosophical issues related to betrayal in love, which here is depicted as an inevitable result of fate and human nature. On its surface this poem appears to depict a deserving Princess bride who is betrayed by an inadequately devoted lover. Yet, as in the majority of Christina Rossetti's love poems, mutability appears insistently as the culprit in the background of this narrative. It is the force that impels the characters' reactions to their circumstances and prevents fulfillment of love.
Typicallyin quest romances both lovers are idealized, but in Rossetti's poem only one of the central characters is admirable. The Princess dies languishing as she awaits her bridegroom's delayed arrival. As we learn in the last 60 of the poem's 540 lines, she is entirely passive, like Tennyson's [115/116] Mariana and most of the dream-poem heroines from Morris's Defence volume. She is beautiful, "Meet queen for any kingly king, / With gold-dust on her hair." And her temperament complements her beauty. The veiled figures who are carrying away her body when the Prince finally appears first admonish him:
"You loitered on the road too long,
You trifled at the gate
The enchanted dove upon her branch
Died without a mate." [Poems, 1:108]
And then they eulogize their dead Princess:
"We never saw her with a smile
Or with a frown;
Her bed seemed never soft to her, Tho' tossed of down;
She little heeded what she wore, Kittle, or wreath, or gown;
We think her white brows often ached Beneath her crown,
Till silvery hairs showed in her locks That used to be so brown."
"We never heard her speak in haste:
Her tones were sweet
And modulated just so much
As it was meet:
Her heart sat silent thro' the noise
And concourse of the street
. There was no hurry in her hands
No hurry in her feet." [Poems, 1:109]
Significantly, these and the rest of the last 60 lines in The Prince's Progress were written in 1861, four years before the bulk of the narrative was composed, and clear differences in focus and technique distinguish the two parts of the poem. The lines from 1861-in a way typical of Christina Rossetti's poems of betrayed love — emphasize the character of the betrayed lover and the pathos of her fate. The 480 lines that precede the Prince's arrival carefully characterize the Prince, but they are far more[116/117]philosophical in tone than the poem's final stanzas, and they make far more obtrusive use of symbolism in order to evoke a dreamlike atmosphere. The tone and atmosphere in combination produce a narrative that, in its echoes of other relevant poetic texts, once again suggests a highly self-conscious poet appropriating the work of her precursors in revisionist ways. As in the Monna Innominata, Rossetti manages to sustain a tension on the reader's part between sympathetic involvement with the characters and events of her poem on the one hand and intellectual detachment on the other. Such detachment is compelled by an awareness, repeatedly elicited by her text, of specific literary precedents and traditions that have helped to generate the poem.
In the course of the dilatory Prince's "progress" toward his bride, he encounters obstacles that remind us variously of man's susceptibility to sexual enchantment as it is portrayed in Keats's "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," of the futility that characterizes most of Tennyson's questers; in "The Holy Grail" and of the landscape traversed by Browning's Childe Roland. Like Tennyson's Tristram, Rossetti's Prince is "Strong of limb if of purpose weak" (Poems, 1:96) and, also like Tristram, he is easily waylaid during the first mile of his journey by "A wave-haired milkmaid, rosy and white." After the Prince quaffs the maiden's milk, she becomes Latmia-like and Keatsian: "Was she a maid, or an evil dream?" And she compels him to remain "a day and a night fast laid / In her subtle toils." Under the "apple-tree" (which becomes an icon of fall and betrayal in Rossetti's poetry), he
Lay and laughed and talked to the maid,
Who twisted her hair in a cunning braid
And writhed in shining serpent-coils
And held him.... [Poems, 1:97]
After moving from her lair, the Prince is further delayed by a landscape as barren and hostile as that which discourages Brownings Childe Roland through most of his quest:
... The grass grew rare,
A blight lurked in the darkening air,
The very moss grew hueless and spare,
The last daisy stood all astunt;
Behind his back the soil lay bare,
But barer in front. [Poems, 1:98; 117/118]
We are made aware of the derivative, literary quality of Rossetti's narrative not only by its conspicuous echoes of these familiar Romantic and Victorian poems, but also by its dreamlike, often nightmarish atmosphere, which recalls Tennyson's "The Lotos-Eaters" and "Mariana" as well as dream Poems by Morris such as "The Blue Closet," "The Tune of the Seven Towers," "Golden Wings" and "Spell-bound." Most of these poems by Morris, like Tennyson's "Mariana" and "The Lady of Shalott," emphasize the dreamlike atmosphere surrounding a woman vainly waiting for a lover. As Margaret Lourie has quite correctly observed, reading such poems
allows us to isolate a strain in Victorian Romanticism which perhaps began with early Tennyson poems ... and certainly culminated ... in the early work of ... Yeats. It is a strain which rejects Arnold's "powerful application of ideas to life" in favor of a movement downward out of life and into primeval levels of consciousness. It is a strain which ran from Tennyson through Morris and the other Pre-Raphaelites to Walter Pater and from there, to Yeats's friends in the Rhymers' Club, whose movement out of life was all too often literal. ["Embodiment of Dreams," 202-3]
This strain of Victorian Romanticism, specifically as it dominates Pre-Raphaelite poetry, is wholly compatible with some of Christina Rossetti's favorite religious texts. Its solipsism might be seen, in the case of Rossetti, as a literalization of the New Testament insistence (Luke 17:21) that "The kingdom of God is within you," a doctrine also taken literally and developed at length in Rossetti's much-loved Imitatio Christi. In that work, Thomas à Kempis admonishes: "Learn to despise outward things and to give thyself to things inward, and thou shalt perceive the kingdom of God to be come in thee.... All His glory and beauty is from within." (Imitation of Christ 2.1). Clearly, in The Prince's Progress, in many of Christina Rossetti's other poems of vain love, and even in her children's poetry, she makes a significant, if often derivative, contribution to the genealogy of Victorian literature of "life-defying interiority," which, in its effects upon the reader, is predominantly aesthetic. Ultimately however, as Jerome McGann has suggested, such aestheticism, through its insistence upon the inadequacies and corruption of the world, serves as a social and ideological critique of Rossetti's culture (NER, 253-54).
Very early in The Princes Progress the futility and "the doom" inevitable in love affairs on earth are emphasized by means of rich, even voluptuous imagery that we usually associate with the aesthetic temperament, from [118/119] Keats and early Tennyson to Swinburne and Pater. Before beginning his journey, the Prince requires the mysterious "voice of my doom" to tell him "Of my veiled bride in her maiden bloom." That voice describes her, significantly, as "Spell-bound," watching "in one white room," where
"By her head lilies and rosebuds grow;
The lilies droop, will the rosebuds blow?
The silver slim lilies hang the head low;
Their stream is scanty, their sunshine rare;
Let the sun blaze out, and let the stream flow,
They will blossom and wax fair.
"Red and white poppies grow at her feet,
The blood-red wait for sweet summer heat,
Wrapped in bud-coats hairy and neat;
But the white buds swell. one day they will burst,
Will open their death-cups drowsy and sweet —
Which will open the first?" [Poems, 1:96]
The voice concludes with repeated instructions to seize the day, and these are echoed by a chorus of voices, half sad and half glad:
"Time is short, life is short." they took up the tale:
"Life is sweet, love is sweet, use today while you may;
Love is sweet, and tomorrow may fail;
Love is sweet, use today." [Poems, 1:96]
Two years after the publication of The Prince's Progress, this carpe diem motif found its most eloquent Victorian spokesman in Walter Pater, who, in reviewing Morris's poetry, emphasized the "awful brevity" of human experience: "A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic fife. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses?" (Sambrook, 115). In The Prince's Progress Christina Rossetti seems, in response to life's transience, almost to sanction an Epicurean quest for love, while at the same time pronouncing upon the inevitability of its failure. Almost drowned during his last adventure before arriving at the Princess's palace, the Prince desperately "clutched in one drowning hand" the phial containing the "Elixir of Life" distilled by an ancient sorcerer who had detained him. The Prince hopes, as he nears[119/120]the palace, that despite his tardiness, the potion's promise of prolonged life in love "May go far to woo him a wife" (Poems, 1:107). Ironically, however, he is unable to outrun mutability; the Princess is dead.
Slip past, slip fast,
Uncounted hours from first to last,
Many hours till the last is past,
Many hours dwindling to one —
One hour whose die is cast,
One last hour gone.
Come, gone-gone for ever —
Gone as an unreturning river —
Gone as to death the merriest liver —
Gone as the year at the dying fall —
Tomorrow, today, yesterday, never —
Gone once for all. [Poems, 1:105]
The final note of this poem is pathos, a sequel to the complacent happiness recorded by the sisters in Goblin Market who attain happiness precisely because they renounce the kind of pleasures that seduce the Prince during his journey. Though eminently desirable in The Prince's Progress, the beauty and joy of fulfilled love are fated to be unattainable. They constitute a temptation the pursuit of which is futile because the simple fact of mutability is insuperable. Patriarchal society's refusal to acknowledge this futility is a cruel deception that, in both poems, victimizes women. Moreover, the deception is perpetuated precisely in the fairy-tale traditions of romantic poetry that Goblin Market and The Prince's Progress parody, both formally and thematically. From these works we infer that the carpe diem impulse, especially in its connection with romantic ideals, must inevitably be quelled by true knowledge of vanitas mundi, except insofar as the impulse, its momentary fulfillment, or its disappointment can be preserved in art along with implied or explicit monitions to renounce desires for fulfillment in this world. In this way Christina Rossetti paradoxically preserves literary tradition — by appropriating and transvaluing it in parody — while she presents a critique of the ideology underlying that tradition.
Rossetti wrote many poems that seem designed less to warn the woman desiring to fill "love's capacity" against sensory temptation than to [120/121] warn her against the false men who embody such temptation. By the last stanzas of "Maude Clare," for instance, Maude has painfully learned about the dangers of love and can readily renounce Thomas, who has betrayed her. She charges his bride, Nell, to
"Take my share of a fickle heart,
Mine of a paltry love:
Take it or leave it as you will,
I wash my hands thereof." [Poems, 1:46]
The gesture of renunciation is more difficult and equivocal for the victimized heroine of "Light Love" (1856) who, during dialogue with her treacherous lover, "strained his baby in her arms, / His baby to her heart" (Poems, 1:137). Like Rossetti's "The Sins of the Fathers" this poignant, sentimental poem, with illicit passion and a bastard child in the foreground, is daringly un-Victorian. But the woman in "Light Love" is unlike the speaker in "The Sins of the Fathers" who renounces marriage while veiling her illegitimacy to protect her mother. The persona in "Light Love" is concerned exclusively with her own pathetic situation and is bewildered at her betrayal. She does agree, finally, to "Even let it go, the love that harms," but to her child — the issue of her "light" love who weightily perpetuates it — she entones, "We twain will never part; / Mine own, his own, how dear thou art" (Poems, 1:137). That child's perfidious father is about to abandon the mother for more tempting pleasures of the flesh:
"For night at hand there blooms a bride,
My bride before the morn;
Ripe-blooming she, as thou forlorn.
Ripe-blooming she, my rose, my peach;
She woos me day and night:
I watch her tremble in my reach;
She reddens, my delight;
She ripens, reddens in my sight." [Poems, 1:137-38]
But the child's mother sympathetically warns this callous voluptuary against infidelity and mutability, two subjects of her own recent schooling in love:[121/122]
"Haste where the spiced garden blows:
But in bare autumn eves
Wilt thou have store of autumn sheaves?
Thou leavest, love, true love behind,
To seek a love as true;
Go, seek in haste: but wilt thou find?" (Poems, 1:138)
Oblivious to her plea, her lover abandons her and she is at the end embittered: "She raised her eyes, not wet / But hard, to Heaven / And asked / 'Does God forget?'" (Poems, 1:138). Like Ford Madox Brown's unfinished painting, "Take your son, Sir"(began in 1852), the victimized woman in this poem is in dialogue not only with her (significantly unnamed) lover, but with the entire corrupt and corrupting society he represents. Unlike the materialistic Thomas in "Maude Clare" however, this man is ironically in search of a "ripe-blooming" carnal ideal. His example exposes the hypocrisy of Victorian mythologies that portrayed women as saintly spiritual beings. These myths proliferated in conduct books of the day — most of them written by men — as well as in literature. (For a full discussion of this literature, see Gorham, Victorian Girl.)
The speaker in "An Apple-Gathering" is more perplexed than embittered by her rather abstractly represented experience of betrayal by a false lover. Here again, images of the harvest predominate, suggesting that one reaps what one sows. As the speaker views her female friends returning from the orchards with baskets full of apples, some with help from "a stronger hand," she reminisces:
I plucked pink blossoms from mine apple tree
And wore them all that evening in my hair:
Then in due season when I went to see
I found no apples there. [Poems, 1:43]
Like Laura in Goblin Market, this speaker prematurely enjoys sensual pleasures associated with love, thus betraying her own best potential, and is subsequently deserted by her lover, forfeiting the sustained fulfillment she expects. Dismayed and bewildered, she asks plaintively,
Ah Willie, Willie, was my love less worth
Than apples with their green leaves piled above?
I counted rosiest apples on the earth
Of far less worth than love. [Poems, 1:44; 122/123]
Realizing how imprudently she has "counted," she loiters at the poems conclusion while neighbors pass her by and while the dews, suggestive of her tears, "fell fast" as she herself had in her amorous innocence before her betrayal.
As in "An Apple-Gathering" at issue in almost all of Rossetti's poems about betrayed lovers or betrayed expectations of love is the unattainability of fulfillment. As we have seen, Rossetti often stresses ideal love's distance from reality by describing the experience of love with images of mutability. Seasonal images, images of planting and harvesting, images of ripeness and unripeness, all appear as natural analogues to naturally impelled passions, whether these are clearly erotic or more vague and ethereal. Her characters' predictable failures enduringly to fulfill passion often result in the renunciation not only of specific disappointed love relationships but also of any belief at all in attainable earthly ideals of love. We find her speakers turning away from nature and toward an internal space that can be filled with attainable spiritual ideals of love. This complete movement is the subject of her lyric, "Twice," a poem that exemplifies the transition, common to many of Rossetti's poems, from the pursuit of eros to its renunciation in favor of agapè.
"Twice" is spoken by a courageous woman who, with some reluctance, has made overtures to the man she loves. Her lover's response has shattered her faith in the value of erotic love:
You took my heart in your hand
With a friendly smile,
With a critical eye you scanned,
Then set it down,
And said: It is still unripe,
Better wait awhile;
Wait while the skylarks pipe,
Till the corn grows brown. [Poems, 1:125]
She cannot, however, wait till harvest time. Indeed, this experience has altogether destroyed her capacity to pursue earthly passion. Her lover "set [her heart] down" and "it broke." As a result,
... I have not often smiled
Since then, nor questioned since,
Nor cared for corn-flowers wild,
Nor sung with the singing bird.[123/124]
"Twice" operates at a level of cultural criticism different from that of "Light Love" and "An Apple-Gathering." The attack implicit in its four brief stanzas is upon the powerlessness of women in a rigid patriarchal society. The man's words are spoken with absolute and final authority. But the poem subverts the premises underlying that authority by appealing to a higher one who can be imaginatively idealized as a worthy judge and lover. He can be constructed in the image of a genuinely sympathetic and receptive — that is, an ironically nonsexist — being. Along with the sanctions of love in approved social forms and contexts, the speaker here indignantly and impatiently renounces the natural world, and, now penitent for her presumptuous erotic quest, she approaches God:
I take my heart in my hand,
O my God, O my God,
My broken heart in my hand:
Thou hast seen, judge Thou.
My hope was written on sand,
O my God, O my God;
Now let Thy judgment stand —
Yea, judge me now.
This contemned of a man,
This marred one heedless day,
This heart take Thou to scan
Both within and without:
Refine with fire its gold,
Purge Thou its dross away —
Yea hold it in Thy hold,
Whence none can pluck it out. [Poems, 1:125]
She thus acknowledges the uncertainty of eros, but also, aware that her quest for earthly love was misguided, she acknowledges her need to be chastened and "purged" in order to become worthy of Gods superior love. Alienated from the arbitrary and insensitive values of her patriarchal society, the speaker in "Twice," like the persona of "A Birthday" and the lover in "Dream-Love," finds herself to be an alien in the natural world as well. Like Yeats's persona in "Sailing to Byzantium," she perceives her heart, finally, as an artifact that can be "refined" and perfected only when it is "once out of nature," projected wholly either into the world of art or [124/125] the realm of the ideal. Such is the case in all of Christina Rossetti's poems whose focus is not on the possibility of fulfilling earthly love, or upon betrayal in love, but rather upon the apparently inevitable culmination of all compulsive amatory passions — renunciation.
Last modified July 2000