s a consequence of her inexorably Christian (and ultimately evangelical) attitude toward the uses of language, the body of Christina Rossetti's love poetry takes on a unique shape. In the majority of her works Rossetti, through a gallery of distinctive poetic portraits, explores varied approaches [101/102] toward the experience of love. But viewed as a group, the poems have a fairly uniform emphasis, and the pattern of experience that dominates the characters in them constitutes a coherent "mythology" of passion. This literary construct usually involves initial desires for fulfillment of passion in this world, which are (or have been) undermined by an experience of betrayal (either by the beloved or by illusory ideals). Renunciation, or at least withdrawal from the active pursuit of love, follows disillusionment; often the speaker craves death, either as an anodyne or as a transposition to an afterlife of absolute Love, in which the beloved is regenerated as an eschatological figure or is replaced by God. Sometimes, too, the art in which the aspiring or frustrated lover is depicted provides a substitute form of fulfillment, supplying aesthetic, rather than sexual or purely spiritual, gratifications.
Two poems provide a useful frame for any systematic discussion of Rossetti's love poetry: "Love," written in 1847, and "Where love is, there comes sorrow," dated by William Michael Rossetti only as "before 1886." Written shortly after her sixteenth birthday, "Love" is an apparently simple poem of five lines, but it clearly exposes the extraordinary scope and significance that the term love held for the young Rossetti:
Love is all happiness, love is all beauty,
Love is the crown of flaxen heads and hoary;
Love is the only everlasting duty;
And love is chronicled in endless story,
And kindles endless glory. [Works, 97]
Even this early poem is built upon a set of ambiguities concerning the term love that prefigure the central dialectic of Rossetti's later, numerous love poems. The word "love" here clearly comprehends all orders of it: erotic, filial, and Godly. Moreover, as in the Monna Innominata, these orders are not distinct, but in the course of the poem merge with one another and modulate upward. In the first line, the concept that love ubiquitously provides "all happiness" and "all beauty" seems an innocent and simple-minded ideal, except that its metaphoric presence in the second fine as "the crown of flaxen heads and hoary" contains resonances of the crown of thorns. These two lines suggest the way in which fallen perceptions and experiences of love are redeemed through the ultimate display of Love: God's for mankind in Christ. Thus — with a continued simplicity reminiscent of Blake's Songs — the redemption of this-worldly [102/103] love results in a perception of it, in line three, as "the only everlasting duty." In line four, moreover, love's position as the preeminent topic for "endless story" not only recalls its tedious repetition in poetry and romance, its embodiment in the literature of the mutable, fallen world, but also suggests that the phenomenon of such literature manifests God's own "endless story," the eternity of Love that comprehends and supersedes such literature. In the last line, truncated for emphasis, we learn that this story "kindles endless glory." But this is an ambiguous statement, reminding us of the vanity of authors in pursuit of fame, but also of the possibility that love literature (as an extension of God's Word) can serve its authors and mankind as a source of redemption. Underlying this brief lyric, then, is a whole galaxy of attitudes toward love, various constellations of which engage Rossetti in her subsequent, exploratory love poems. This body of poems, taken as a whole, fully map that galaxy.
If "Love" wholly exalts the experience and potential of man's passionate impulses, then "Where love is, there comes sorrow" more narrowly emphasizes the ultimate beneficence of experiencing love on earth, despite the suffering such experience inevitably carries with it, for
Who would not choose a sorrow
Love's self will cheer tomorrow?
One day of sorrow,
Then such a long tomorrow! [Poems, 2:322]
According to this poem, the impulse to love "only means our good," for it guarantees the capacity for "every sort of bliss" in the afterlife. Again here, a discussion of apparently secular love, or eros, opens into a prophecy of eternal, redeemed love, agapê. Further, judging from this lyric and from Rossetti's major poems of love (including the Monna Innominata), the capacity to enjoy an afterlife of redeemed Love can be adequately expanded in this life only through the suffering wrought by resisting temptations to enjoy erotic earthly fulfillment. Any expectation of such fulfillment is illusory, as Goblin Market symbolically shows and as "Three Nuns," "The Convent Threshold," and the Monna Innominata demonstrate through their psychodrama.
Most of Rossetti's love poems insist that erotic impulses be simultaneously nurtured and repressed, that we "endure the mood" ("Where love is" line three), along with its inevitably concomitant sorrows, in order eventually to achieve a greater gratification than any attainable on earth. [103/104] This thesis is also suggested in a pair of poems Rossetti wrote when she was only fifteen, "Love Attacked" and "Love Defended." In the first lyric the speaker requests relief from the sorrowful fact that love, which is "more sweet than flowers," is also "faster flying." To alleviate the "restless woe" of love, the dead "fools and sages" of the past who now "At length are blest" advise "Indifference" to passion — to be distinguished from conscious renunciation of all possible means for fulfilling it (Works, 90). The second poem, however, counters their solution by comparing denial of the impulse to love with denial of the other senses, particularly sight and hearing. The speaker in "Love Defended" insists that despite the "unsightly things" and "awful sounds" to which these senses make us vulnerable,
... the face of heaven and earth
And the murmur of the main,
Surely are a recompense
For a little pain.
... though Love may not be free
Always from a taint of grief,
If its sting is very sharp,
Great is its relief. [Works, 91]
Once again, the experience of passion is intrinsically good insofar as it expands one's capacities for sensation and perception.
But total fulfillment of passion is hardly possible in this world, according to the majority of Rossetti's love poems. These are perhaps best organized into three categories: 1) those that explore the possibility of attaining an implied or explicit ideal of love in this world; 2) those that depict betrayal and disillusioninent in love; and 3) those that combine the patterns of the first two categories. Poems in this last group portray a speaker with a clear ideal of love, who endures profound sorrows in pursuit of it, and who finally renounces any possibility of fulfillment in this world for the promise of absolute Love in the afterlife. In some poems of the third category the emphasis is simply on renunciation, the preliminary pursuit of the ideal and its betrayal being implicit or only lightly sketched. Through careful readings of representative poems in each category, we can [104/105] observe the extent to which the ideal of renunciatory passion that dominates Rossetti's poetry allows her to generate verse that is "aesthetic" in dwelling upon the psychological and physical sensations of insatiable lovelonging, while remaining Christian in its emphasis on achieving a transcendental love of God through the experience of such sensations.
Last modified 24 June 2007