Christina Rossetti's "The World," "an interesting revision of the Petrarchan sonnet," exemplifies her attempt to coerce the reader, as well as the narrator, to transcend the "traditional dialects" of beauty, eroticism, desire, and seduction, which ideals the beginning of the sonnet articulates (Harrison). By illustrating the stark contrasts between night and day and good and evil, Rossetti discloses her personal interpretation of the Fall of Man:

By day she wooes me, soft, exceeding fair;
But all night as the moon so changeth she;
Loathsome and foul with hideous leprosy
And subtle serpents gliding in her hair.
By day she wooes me to the outer air,
Ripe fruits, sweet flowers, and full satiety:
But thro' the night, a beast she grins at me,
A very monster void of love and prayer,
By day she stands a lie: by night she stands
In all the naked horror of the truth
With pushing horns and clawed and clutching hands.
Is this a friend indeed; that I should sell
My soul to her, give her my life and youth,
Till my feet, cloven too, take hold on hell?

The speaker's rejection of the horrors of erotic sin echoes Rossetti's own rejection of the "strict requirements of the Petrarchan sonnet in which erotic desire (often with the inevitable sequels of seduction and/or self destruction) has been traditionally expressed" (Harrison). In addition, Rossetti reveals meaning through her lyric diction, utilizing such phrase choices as "subtle serpents" and "ripe fruits." The English love sonnets that inspired her work often used romantic images of "fruits" and "sweet flowers," which use in "The World" creates a seemingly paradoxical image when preceded by the phrase "subtle serpents." This paradox therefore reveals her contradiction between innocent romantic love and sinful erotic desire. When viewed in terms of the Fall, the two phrases remain completely analogous, thus implying that romantic love and erotic desire are one in the same sin. Rossetti had, in fact, "a great horror of ิthe world' in the sense which the terms bears in the New Testament; its power to blur all the great traits of character, to deaden all lofty aims, to clog all the impulses of the soul aspiring to unseen Truth" (Flowers 907).

Questions

1. "The World" is similar to "Goblin Market" in the fact that both works question a certain system of materialistic or erotic values, and both present various symbolic images of good and evil, corruption and innocence. Compare these two works based on their narrative point of view (especially in terms of gender) — what do these works reveal about Rossetti's own view regarding the world?

2. Many historians have stressed that Victorian middle-class males were confronted by temptation and corruption more visibly and intensely than any other member of the Victorian social and cultural milieu (Harrison). Interestingly, the speaker in "The World" is in fact a man being tempted by the sinful ways of woman. Based on this, and Rossetti's own observation of the abundant erotic encounters between her brother and his models, comment on whether or not Rossetti intended to make a critique based on gender — does she blame the man? The woman? Is "The World" a literal interpretation of the Fall? Or rather, does she merely intend to criticize human nature in general?

3. Within her poetry, Rossetti makes various comments on romantic and courtly love. For example, in "After Death," she creates a situation of unrequited love that specifically illicits a sense of pity on behalf of the woman. Similarly in "Autumn," she opens with a situation where she is literally and figuratively stranded as a result of her lonliness:

I dwell alone — I dwell alone, alone,
Whilst full my river flows down to the sea,
Gilded with flashing boats
That bring no friend to me:
O love-songs, gurgling from a hundred throats,
O love-pangs, let me be.

How did she really feel about romantic love? In comparison to her harsh criticism of romance and eroticism in "The World," what do these poetic works reveal? Do they in any way comment on her personal sense of religiosity?

References

Harrison, Anthony H. Chapter 4. Christina Rossetti in Context. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina Press: 1998. Accessed 20 October 2004.

Rossetti, Christina. The Complete Poems. Ed. Betty S. Flowers Penguin Books: 2001.


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Last modified 20 October 2003