After the publication of Sing-Song and the recovery from her illness, Christina Rossetti turned almost exclusively to devotional writing. Although Sing-Song marks a good-bye to the possibility of having a child, the longing for a child and husband did not end. Her religious poetry acknowledged these longings and formed an outlet for them. Many of her "poems explore what she saw as the great danger that the Victorian cult of love and marriage posed to the souls of woman." As a deeply religious woman she was afraid somebody "could come between a woman and her love of God" [Flowers, 165]. After her disappointments with "worldly men," she now turned to the love of God. Betty S. Flowers points out that "disappointments experienced in those earthy love relationships ostensibly set up as 'opposites' to the heavenly one" [169]. However, this love was not only meant in a spiritual but also in a very physical way.

Longings and cravings are ever present in Christina Rossetti's poetry, especially in poems such as "Goblin market". How much she struggled with "unfocused dissatisfaction" [Marsh, 191], whose deeper root was sexual frustration, can be seen in a poem like "Roses on a Brier" [132n]:

Roses on a brier,
Pearls from out the bitter sea,
such is earth's desire
However pure it be.

Neither bud nor brier,
Neither pearl nor brine for me:
Be stilled my long desire;
There shall be no more sea.

Be stilled my passionate heart;
Old earth shall end, new earth shall be:
Be still and earn thy part
Where shall be no more sea.

The speaker of the poem is dissatisfied with "earth's desire" even if it was "pure." She compares the desire to wild roses and to pearls. While the roses grow outside the garden and thus may be unprotected, the pearls come out of a "bitter sea," which might be a metaphor for life. Though both are rare and beautiful, they are also surrounded by a hostile environment. Therefore the speaker refuses both of them in the second stanza. She speaks to herself when she says "Be stilled my long desire/ There shall be no more sea," then asking her own desire to stop longing for something which she cannot have. "Sea" seems to be a metaphor for the emotional upheavals of life.

The meaning becomes clearer in the third and final stanza. Again the speaker demands her heart to be still. Death ("old earth") will be a turning point. In heaven ("new earth") there will be a fulfilment to what the speaker longs for ("earn thy part/where shall be no more sea"). A similar expression of dissatisfaction and frustration is to be found in "The Heart Knoweth its Own Bitterness" [cited from Marsh, 191]: "How can we say 'enough' on earth; 'Enough' with such a craving heart: "questions the lyrical self and expresses the desire to give herself away "I long to pour myself, my soul,/ Not to keep back or count". Yet there is also the dissatisfaction with the people around her ("I will not lean on child of man")

The realisation that she, Rossetti, would not have a child is transformed into a series of poems dealing with plants and their fruitlessness. The imagery of fading blossom and leaves hints at Rossetti's "fading beauty" [Flowers, 169] as well as on her childlessness. Like a plant who had a beautiful blossom, but did not bear any fruit, Rossetti was very beautiful as a young woman, but now finds herself to be past the age of childbearing without having produced an offspring. In a poem like "Dead before Death" the lines "All fallen the blossom that no fruitage bore,/ All lost the present and the future time" express the feeling of the senselessness of one's being if it did not bare any fruit (did not have children). This senselessness does not only enclose the present, but also the future. This expresses the doubt that a life that doesnot produce some kind of fruit has any meaning. The lyrical self is "dead before death" and can only be revived in the next life after death. In "Song (Oh roses for the flush of youth)" the lyrical self also declares herself to have "grown old before my time".

But there is not only the voicing of disappointment. A poem like "A Better Resurrection" marks a turning point, when it states:

. . . My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk,
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall — the sap of spring,
O Jesus, rise in me. . ."

Whereas the first six lines of this stanza enforce the imagery of fading leaves and life-weariness, the last two mark a transition. The lyrical self has a vision of a new spring that comes with Jesus. Disappointed with the love of man she experienced in her life, Rossetti turns to find a substitute in Jesus Christ. He is both begged and expected to bring forth new life in her. The poem concludes with Rossetti imagining herself to be "a royal cup for him my King,/ O Jesus drink of me."

In "Long Barren" the lyrical self declares herself to be 'barren', but asks the Lord to give her strength "to bring forth fruit to Thee." In the second stanza this is reinforced in the lines "yet now strengthen me Thou/That better fruit be borne." In the third and final stanza the lyrical self echoes the biblical "Song of Songs" and turns the poem into a love song to Jesus. ("Thou Rose of Sharon, Cedar of broad roots,/Vine of sweet fruits, . . . ") The poem concludes with a plea to Jesus to give strength to her weak being. ("Feed Thou my feeble shoots")

Rossetti's Substitute Love for Jesus

 decorative initial 'C' hristina Rossetti's "unfocused dissatisfaction" had now found a focus and a relief. Rossetti's turn to devotional writing is depicted by Dorothy Mermin in the following way: "Christina Rossetti stopped trying to rebel: in her devotional writings she finds an appropriate place for a conventional woman's voice" [79]. Her "desire for Christ, the ideal lover" [Harrison, 78] and "visions of fulfillment in all-embracing love . . in Paradise" [Harrison, 78] helped her to find a new sense of purpose in her life and inspired her to 'new' poetry. Taking up the "conventional 'spousal' imagery of religious verse, the speaker described as a bride and Christ as the bridegroom, . . ." [Harrison, 77] and mixing it with "appetitive images" [Harrison, 78], Rossetti takes up another male genre (this time devotional writing) and alters it to transport her message of "earthly love's inadequacy and the impossibility of achieving genuine fulfillment through it" [Harrison, 56] and the exchange of it for the pure love of Jesus Christ who would not hurt her: Christ had become "the ideal lover" [Harrison, 78] and the only one to satisfy her needs. These needs are expressed in the same sensual descriptions that highlight, for example "Goblin Market."

The desire and lusting for Jesus becomes evident in a poem such as "Like as the desireth the water brooks", which opens:

"My heart is yearning:
Behold my yearning heart,
And lean low to satisfy,
Its lonely beseeching cry,
For Thou its fullness art. . . . " [231]

In this poem the lyrical self expresses her "yearning" for Jesus. As the title (taken from a psalm) already indicates, she is longing for Christ as a deer longs for "water brooks." These water brooks are a place where one is safe. They also deliver water, which is the source of all forms of life on earth. Just as she could not exist without the life-giving water, she could not exist without the life-giving spirituality of Jesus. He is described like a protector, who should "behold" her heart. At the same time he should also "satisfy" this heart, which is begging ("beseeching") to him, for he is "its fullness," all this heart needs to be fulfilled.

In "Peace I leave with you" [230] she begs Jesus to "Wrap me up in thy love" and in "Because Thy love hath sought me" [230] she offers him her heart "I lift my heart to thy heart, /Thy Heart sole resting-place for mine. . . ". In "Thy fainting spouse" she uses the "spousal imagery" and describes herself as wife of Jesus:

"Thy fainting spouse, yet still Thy spouse;
Thy trembling dove, yet still Thy dove;
Thine own by mutual vows,
By mutual love. . . ." [230]

The first line describes her to be a "fainting" spouse. The fainting could have two reasons: Either she feels weak in terms of exhaustion, or it is a fainting that is caused by his presence. Yet although she feels weak, she still declares herself to be his wife. In the second line she illustrates herself as "Thy trembling dove." Dove seems to be used like a pet name between lovers. Again the word "trembling" raises the question for the cause: weakness or (sexual) excitement. In the third line she describes herself to be "Thine own by mutual vows,/ By mutual love." Her whole being belongs to him. The "mutual vows" evoke the image of a legally sanctioned marriage, whose sole foundation is "mutual love."

"I Know You Not" [243] again echoes the "Song of Songs," before expressing her desire as a thirst ("I thirst for Thee, full fount and flood;/ My heart calls thine, as deep to deep"); "Lord, grant me to love Thee" [268n] enlarges this image to "The hungering thirsting longing of my heart". The longing for Jesus expresses every of her needs and they will be stilled by him: he will quench her thirst, feed her and give peacefulness to her desire.

Last modified 15 March 2007