One poet principally acts as painter or illustrator of the narrative scene through words. The artist may employ words rather than images here, but he also clearly lays the primary focus on the visual. Instead of directly or immediately illuminating the situation of the characters involved in this poem's narrative, the artist chooses more often to show rather than to tell. Rossetti successfully relates his narrative through the speaker's detailed description of the setting alone.
As readers, we receive a sense of most of the emotions present in this room only through implication or from the point of view of an observer. Rossetti relates the feelings of the mother in the room by making the observation that "all her features seemed in pain/ With woe, and her eyes gazed and yearned" and that "With anxious softly-stepping haste/ Our mother went where Margaret lay." With this, Rossetti makes clear to us the mother's psychological state. In the same way, he attempts to illustrate the child's feelings at the dramatic event of his mother's realization of her daughter's death by displaying only those physical actions present. "For my part," the child says, "I but hid my face,/ And held my breath, and spoke no word." Here we can make assumptions about how the child feels, but Rossetti does not have him openly state them.
He differs, however, in employing this technique of pure, objective description of the scene only with the specific element of the young speaker's exhaustion. Rossetti has the young child openly proclaim that his
tired mind felt weak and blank;
Like a sharp strengthening wine it drank
The stillness and the broken lights.
Thus, Rossetti specifically highlights the factor of tiredness in the context of the situation. On the other hand, he complicates this use of the elements of extreme exhaustion and fatigue with the clearly observational tone of the work. Although the child speaker is tired here, it is somehow as if he simultaneously attains an especially heightened sense of awareness and attention to detail. Here, Rossetti creates a speaker whose mind records every sound and every minute detail or movement despite the handicap of fatigue.
In this way then, Rossetti successfully illustrates the extraordinary drama and intensity of these characters' situation. The speaker may be tired, but his sister lays on her deathbed. Everything around him accordingly becomes amplified, exaggerated, and significant. The speaker adopts an almost purely observational, distant, and detached tone because this is all he can do. The boy knows for certain only his tiredness and everything else — all the other emotions and feelings that encompass him — he cannot yet openly state or directly describe.
1. What significance did you perceive in the emphasis of the phrase, "Christ's blessing on the newly born!" repeated twice in the poem? Does Rossetti simply attempt to convey irony in this way or could there be even more meaning behind his use of the phrase?
2. In what ways does Rossetti's creation of a poem to illustrate this scene exceed any expectations one might have for a two-dimensional painting? How many of our five senses are alluded to in this work?
3. Waiting and anxiousness are some primary themes of this poem. Does Rossetti attempt to emphasize this through the work's formal structure at all?
4. For the majority of the poem, Rossetti makes the characters of the inside of the room where the dying sister lays the sole focus. Might there be significance in Rossetti's making the disturbance of a group of unmentioned outsiders the cause of the mother's recognition of her child's death?
Last modified 12 October 2003