The tension between what she was and what she thought she should be exhausted Rossetti. Physical as well as spiritual distress played its part; throughout most of her life she was a sick woman. Try as she might to rejoice in disfigurement as a bulwark against pride, this lover of beauty did not enjoy being brown-skinned, bloated, flabby, bulge-eyed, pre-maturely old. In a disquietingly large number of poems, she longs for rest so intensely that she thinks of death as blessed oblivion rather than as blessed gateway:
Rest, rest; the troubled breast
Panteth evermore for rest:--
Be it sleep or be it death
Rest is all it coveteth.
Here she succumbed to a temptation perhaps graver than those which she had wearied herself in fleeing:
I am full of heaviness.
Earth is cold, too cold at the sea:
Whither shall I turn and flee?
Is there any hope for me?
Any ease for my heart-aching,
Any sleep that hath no waking,
Any night without day-breaking,
Any rest from weariness?
Hark the wind is answering:
Hark the running stream replieth:
There is rest for him that dieth;
In the grave whoever lieth
Nevermore hath sorrowing.
This is uncomfortably close to Swinburne's "Garden of Proserpine." Not that she doubts for a moment the certainty of life after death; but it is that wonderfully long interval of slumber in the grave while she awaits the resurrection of the body which attracts her:
Life is not good. One day it will be good
To die, then live again;
To sleep meanwhile. . .
Asleep from risk, asleep from pain.
In order to enjoy this boon however, it was necessary to die, and she was terribly afraid of dying. Her oversensitive imagination was appalled by the physical ghastliness of it, but also by the possibility that she might die in a state of unforgivable spiritual torpor. How would it be possible to feel the approach of the Bridegroom at a time when she could feel nothing at all? And if she did not greet Him, would he greet Her? It would have been easy for Christina to wallow in self pity, to seek relief in the perverted thrill of posing as a lost soul, or to relapse into acedia. She did nothing of the sort. Her poems exhibit no steady ascent from the depths to the summit: what they reveal is the fact that she never gave up. She would have been glad, of course, to evade the necessity of struggling. The long slumber of the grave offered one means of escape, but its attractions were spoiled by the fear of dying and the fear of judgement. She must live, then. But how could she live without some compromise between her flesh and her spirit--a compromise which, she felt sure, would end in the subjection of thhe latter to the former? For the true mystics, the symbol of earthly life was not an up-hill climb but one joyous leap, here and now, into the arms of the Almighty Lover. This she greatly desired; such rest would be even better than the rest of the tomb.
Fairchild, Hoxie Neal . Religious Trends in English Poetry, 1830-1880; Christianity and Romanticism in the Victorian Era. New York: Columbia UP, 1970.
Last modified 1991