In "Songs in a Cornfield" Christina Rossetti creates several ironizing effects by contrasting stylistic elements characteristic of a nursery rhyme with an abrasively symbolic narrative structure. Although the poet emphasizes the simplicity and safety of the three singers, May, Rachel and Lettice, by means of drawn-out anaphora and familiar meter (fifth stanza), she simultaneously imparts great symbolic weight upon the various narrative stops. With such repetitions as "Out in the fields," "Take the wheat," and "Summer," the poem forces the reader to re-experience subtleties of various natural images — fields, wheat, and summer. Rossetti, then, challenges the simplicity and safety of, not only the singers, but, all the characters who might enter the cornfield; if the singers now represent a sort of Greek chorus, then the objective narrative voice weaved in and out can also represent the psychological persona of the reapers and of Marian until she speaks for herself at the end.
While the reapers took their ease,
Their sickles lying by,
Rachel sang a second strain,
And singing seemed to sigh: —
"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 things go their way,
Only we must stay,
Must not follow; good bye swallow, good swallow."
Right before she introduces Rachel's song, Rossetti carefully mentions that the reapers' "sickles" are "lying by," and thereby furthering what Professor Anthony H. Harrison calls a destabilizing effect. The sickles, beside the reapers and the singers and the ominous event of the bird, function realistically and symbolically as an agriculture tool and as a violent, mythological weapon. In Rachel's song, the reader is taken on an arc within an arc; here the poem reaches a climax wherein seeing a swallow becomes a ruptured symbolic event. Rossetti exaggerates this moment with simple rhymes and spondee after spondee, thus stressing almost every syllable of every word. The fifth line of each stanza above sustains and exaggerates the theme of loss even more with its added length, and again, with its repetitions. That this song should come immediately before Marian comes to life foreshadows the irony of the poem's conclusion: Returning quickly to a familiar, apparently safe, metrical pattern when Marian's words "Cold like death" (fifteenth stanza) still hang in the air, the last stanza continues the earlier play between today-tomorrow and weep-sleep with repeated hypotheticals until the last two lines answer with a very specific, ironic image.
1. How does this poem both use and challenge stylistic elements characteristic of a nursery rhyme?
2. In comparison with many of her other poems, "Songs in a Cornfield" markedly departs from Rossetti's obssession with religion as subject matter. Looking at Marian's song, would you say that there is no room at all in this poem for any religious interpretation? [Suggestion: compare this poem to Hopkins' "Spring and Fall."]
4. Using terms particular to visual art, how might we examine this poem's placement of the natural? When does it come to the foreground, when does it remain in the background? To what affect does Rossetti do so? Is it a stretch to say that Rossetti uses the natural in her poem to create a dialectic between the different voices of the poem and their environment?
Last modified 29 February 2008