Christina Rossetti fell in love twice in her life. The first time with James Collinson, then later with Charles Cayley. The paradoxical character of Christina's genius when she was in love can be seen from the poems which she then wrote. None of her poems to Collinson reflects joy or hope. On the contrary, at the height of her love for him she wrote some of her most poignant lines on the imminence and the pathos of death. In her the idea of love turned inexorably to the idea of death, and in this association we can surely see her instinctive shrinking from the surrender which love demands. Two of her most famous poems come from this time, and in each Christina is obsessed by thoughts of death. In "Remember" she asks her beloved to remember her when she is dead, because that is all that he will be able to do for her. Then, with characteristic humility, she assures him that even this is not necessary and that all she asks is that he himself should not be unhappy:
Yet if you should forget me for awile
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that I once had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
In the wonderful "Song" which is a kind of counterpart to this sonnet, Christina forsees what death will mean to her and wonders if perhaps she also will forget the past:
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightengale
Sing on as if in pain;
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply I may forget.
In Christina love released a melancholy desire for death, and for a kind of death not closely connected with her usual ideas of an afterworld. It is an intermediate condition between sleeping and waking, a half-conscious state in which memories are dim and even the strongest affections fade into shadows. Moreover, she felt that the claims of love were not for her, that her way of life was unsuited to it, and that she must go back to her old denials and refusals.
Rigorous though Christina's denial of love was, it was not strong enough to curb all her womanly and human instincts. She fought against them and kept them in iron control, but, left alone with her genius, she could not from time to time prevent them from bursting into almost heart-rending poetry, which is all the more powerful because it rises from not controlled thoughts but from longings which force themselves on her despite all her efforts to check them. It is not surprising that, being the victim of such a struggle, she sometimes felt it was too much for her and she could not bear it endure longer. At such times she would long for release and find no magic even in the spring;
I wish I were dead, my foe,
My friend, I wish I were dead,
With a stone at my tired feet
With a stone at my head.
In the pleasant April days
Half the world will stir and sing,
But half the world will slug and rot
For all the sap of Spring.
In these words there is more than a passing mood: there is a deep basis of experience, of misery in a defeat which has been hard for Christina to endure.
Bowra, C. M. The Romantic Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1949.
Last modified 1989