mong the most illuminating of Rossetti's poems that explore possibilities of attaining a love-ideal in this world are "A Triad," "Dream-Love," "A Bride Song" and "A Birthday." The first two finally abjure any such possibility, while the second pair, at least on the surface, seem to celebrate a realization of the ideal. On closer inspection, however, we find that "A Bride Song" reflects a state of mind that is conditional. The poem exposes the psychology of an optimist in pursuit of ideal love, and its singer is therefore vulnerable to failure. "A Birthday" retreats in a different manner from any clear delineation of a permanently fu1filled passion in the real world. Moreover, the poem is significantly ambiguous in defining the nature (erotic or spiritual) of the described love.
The power of "A Triad" (1856) is indicated by the opposite responses the poem elicited from Rossetti's contemporaries. At one extreme, Edmund Gosse — who is certainly her most astute early critic — described the sonnet as "marvellous," and in his general review of her work (1893) queried incredulously, "Why has Miss Rossetti allowed this piece, one of the gems of the volume of 1862, to drop out of her collected poems?" ("Christina Rossetti," 216). At the other extreme, an anonymous reviewer in the Spectator sneered, "For voluptuous passion ... ['A Triad'] could have been written by Dante Gabriel Rossetti" (Quoted in Packer, 106). Whereas Gosse values the poem primarily for its aesthetic achievement, the Spectator's reviewer is clearly disturbed by its moral and social implications. Indeed, Jerome McGann praises the poem as an exposé of the sexual and social constraints on Victorian women, which undermined their integrity and prevented true fulfillment in love relationships (NER, 245). Although the sonnet certainly can be viewed as a critique of the facts of love for women in Victorian England, it does not initially invite a reading in its true historical contexts, but rather elides them. The poem portrays three types of female passion — all ultimately inaccessible to true fulfillment, two pursuing delusive pathways to it:
Three sang of love together: one with lips
Crimson, with cheeks and bosom in a glow,
Flushed to the yellow hair and finger tips;
And one there sang who soft and smooth as snow [105/106]
Bloomed like a tinted hyacinth at a show;
And one was blue with famine after love,
Who like a harpstring snapped rang harsh and low
The burden of what those were singing of.
One shamed herself in love; one temperately
Grew gross in soulless love, a sluggish wife;
One famished died for love. Thus two of three
Took death for love and won him after strife;
One droned in sweetness like a fattened bee:
All on the threshold, yet all short of life. [Poems, 1:29]
Here the parodic use of the Petrarchan sonnet form, synonymous in English poetry with the statement of love ideals, serves to expose and undercut such ideals. One woman is a voluptuary who ambiguously "shamed" herself in love, thus proscribing the possibility of genuine fulfillment. The second, vain and calculating "like a hyacinth at a show," misguided in her goals and values, destroys all potential for genuine love by participating in a "soulless" marriage as a "sluggish wife." The third apparently attempts no gratification of her passionate impulses and "famished died for love." Yet all three are paradoxically "on the threshold" simply by virtue of their all-consuming compulsion to love. Significantly, all "sang of love together." Making up a pathetic but harmonious chorus, the three types of women combine to suggest the various impulses at work in every woman's quest for fulfillment in love. The poems final phrase, however, suggests that fulfillment would be impossible even to such impulses in combination: not each, but all "are short of life." One could infer from this poem that an ideal of fulfillment is attainable but would require a love match in which the woman is able to satisfy her passions without debasing herself as a voluptuary or a dependent. Yet the presence in the sonnet of the woman "blue with famine after love" is monitory. The ambiguous description can be seen not only to characterize a woman in vain pursuit of love, but also to insist that even "after love" — apparently a satisfactory experience — the lover remains unfulfilled (as does Laura in Goblin Market after eating the Goblin men's fruits). In short, not just these lovers, but all possible variations upon them, are doomed to be "short of life. "Ironically, such lovers turn to "song" — an expression of their frustration and victimization by false ideals — as a surrogate source of fulfillment and harmony in their lives.
Though in most respects — in tone, atmosphere, form, and subject — [106/107]"Dream-Love" (1854) is very different from "A Triad," its final thematic point is the same: that no experience of love available in the mutable world is adequate to fulfill the ideal of love our fervent desires compel us to project. Lona Packer describes the work as one of Christina Rossetti's "tenderest love lyrice" and infers that it "expresses ... the ideality of a girl's first ecstatic response to love" (Packer,79). That this poem deals in idealities; is quite correct, but the vision projected in the poem is not limited by location in a particular visionary's mind. Rather, the poem's ethereal personification of Young Love is mythic and universal. Depicted here is a detached vision of a lover/dreamer, the object of whose dreamed, ideal love remains mysterious.
"Dream-Love" appears in The Prince's Progress and Other Poems immediately before "Twice" a poem that presents the dialectic of worldly desire and renunciation in two pairs of specular stanzas. In contrast to the singers in "A Triad" and the speaker in "Twice," "Dream-Love" describes in mythic terms the circumstances of an imaginary, perfect male lover. He can be perfect, however, only because he is wholly unworldly and withdrawn, existing in an erotic dream world. He is fully absorbed into Pater's "kingdom of reverie" where "earthly love" has become "a profound somnambulism" and where love is "defined by the absence of the beloved" (Sambrook, 106-7).
Like many of Rossetti's love poems that focus on the desire to perpetuate passion, despite its arousal in a pathetically transient life and a mutable world, "Dream-Love" is organized seasonally, beginning in "May-time" and concluding as autumn signals the approach of "poppied death." But the poem's thematic direction is subtly rendered by changes in the meaning we are led to derive from its most important symbol, the dove. This symbol frames the poem. The dialectical relationship between mutable reality and a timeless dream world is resolved in this image common to both. On one level a real dove housed in the natural fane where Young Love sleeps, and, on another, a symbol of the ideal love that occupies his dreams, the dove, through the poems delicate modulations, finally comes to suggest the existence of an eternal love unavailable in this life. Thus, Rossetti exploits the traditional meanings of the symbolic dove, first in its associations with Aphrodite and erotic, "dull sublunary" love, and secondly in its connection with the Holy Ghost and sublime spiritual love.
The first stanza of the poem makes clear its symbolic texture and tenor: [107/108]
Young Love ties sleeping
In May-time of the year,
Among the lilies,
Lapped in the tender light:
White lambs come grazing,
White doves come building there; And round about him
The May-bushes are white. [Poems, 1:123]
Significantly, Young Love disregards the real world even during nature's traditional time of love, beauty, and innocent rebirth. Built into the lily and lamb symbols here, however, are intimations of death and betrayal. Still, these yield, in the stanza's sixth line, to the doves' ambiguously "building there" in the burgeoning natural world; they are literally building nests for procreation and symbolically building an ideal of love in Young Love's dreams. Throughout the poem the natural world is of equivocal value. In stanza two its moss pillows the dreamer's head, but it also provides a place for his obtrusively absent lover's. Its winds and waters, like the twilight, finger languorously, but the dreamer is oblivious to them. The broad leaves of its trees suggest fulfillment of natural potential, but they "cast shadow / Upon the heavy eyes." Perfect as the real, natural world appears to be here, it contains the seeds of its own destruction, as would love, by extension, in the real world. Ideal, dream love is superior:
But who shall tell the dream?
A perfect sunlight
On rustling forest tips;
Or perfect moonlight
Upon a rippling stream;
Or perfect silence,
Or song of cherished lips. [Poems, 1:123]
Indeed, "in waking / The sights are not so fair," and the "song and silence" of the dream "Are not like these below." Young Love enjoys "perfect sleep":[108/109]
He sees the beauty
Sun hath not looked upon,
And tastes the fountain
His perfect music
Doth hush unto his rest,
And thro' the pauses
The perfect silence calms:
Oh poor the voices
Of earth from cast to west,
And poor earth's stillness
Between her stately palms. [Poems, 1:124]
Thus, sleeping through the months of nature's passion and fulfillment, Young Love apparently enjoys a parallel experience, but in pure, Platonic or beatific form. Eventually, "Coot shadows deepen / Across the sleeping face" as he drowses "Away to poppied death," and nature's winter comes on. At the end of this staged vision we are required to "close the curtains / Of branched evergreen," an appropriate symbol for this uncondemned Keatsian dreamer, whose enchantment with the ideal has allowed him successfully to withdraw from the real world of nature and the necessarily transient love that would accompany participation in it. "Change," we are told, "cannot touch" either the evergreen or the dreamer "With fading fingers sere." Although nature will sustain her cycles, she will remain "unseen" by the Dream Lover who is now, we assume, permanently transposed to the realm of the ideal. "A dove, may be" will "return to nestle" on the Lover's natural deathbed, a place where life in a dream of Love was indistinguishable from "poppied death."
In "A Bride Song," as in "Dream-Love," Rossetti embeds her indirect descriptions of fulfilling ideal love in idyllic natural surroundings, and once again the movement of the poem is inward, both topographically and psychologically. In the poems first three stanzas the speaker ostensibly journeys "thro' the vales to my love," according to the refrain that begins each stanza. The "happy small nest of home / Green from basement to roof" that he envisions in stanza one is deep within the vales and distant from the more exterior threats that nature also houses. The home is[109/110]
Safe from the spider that weaves
Her warp and her woof
In some outermost leaves. [Poems, 1:197]
Yet the natural landscape the bridegroom traverses in pursuit of his bride is otherwise idealized:
Thro? the vales to my love!
Where the turf is so soft to the feet
And the thyme makes it sweet,
And the stately foxglove
Hangs silent its exquisite bells;
And where water wells
The greenness grows greener,
And bulrushes stand
Round a lily to screen her. [Poems, 1:198]
Like nature, the "lily" bride is an ideal of beauty and purity whose symbolic associations with mortality and sacrifice remain unevoked. So perfect is the bridegrooms envisioned beloved that in the poem's final stanza he renounces any need for idyllic nature to house or enhance her. She is sufficient for the bridegroom, and their love would be self-sufficient, were she found:
Nevertheless, if this land,
Like a garden to smell and to sight,
Were turned to a desert of sand;
Stripped bare of delight,
All its best gone to worst,
For my feet no repose,
No water to comfort my thirst,
And heaven like a furnace above,
The desert would be
As gushing of water to me,
The wilderness be as a rose,
If it led me to thee,
O my love. [Poems, 1:198]
As he has, until this point, moved physically toward the interior of the vales, the speaker now moves psychologically inward, abandoning the[110/111]natural world imaginatively to reemphasize the ideal of a self-sufficient love. This movement away from reality, even at its best, to a vision of it at its worst suggests not only the speaker's absolute commitment to his idealized love, but also his sense of desperation in the quest for her, which is still unfulfilled at the end of the poem. The bride of the poem's title is at best a shadowy figure. She is as distant from the lush landscape he passes over and as far from being real as his vision of nature at its "worst." Like the garden turned into a desert, the bride is an entirely conditional creature, an ideal pursued but not realized. In the context of Rossetti's other poems, we are inescapably reminded by "A Bride Song" of The Prince's Progress, in which the perfect bride is lost to the dilatory Prince, not because she is an undiscoverable ideal, but because the Prince arrives too late to save her from death. The general point of both poems, which depict a quest after potentially ideal love, is, nonetheless, the same as that of "Dream-Love." Such quests, no matter how inspired or inspiring they may be, cannot ultimately be fulfilled. They must inevitably end in disappointment unless the direction and object of the quest are transposed to a realm outside of the real world — to a dream or a vision, or to an ideal afterlife. And even then, in Rossetti's poems, fulfillment is uncertain. Alternatively, however, passionate impulses may find fulfillment in art.
"A Birthday" is one of Rossetti's most exuberant poems and at the same time, significantly, one of her most "aesthetic." This brief lyric, written in 1857, is dense with beautiful, richly ambiguous images. It is symmetrically structured in two eight-line stanzas. In the first the speaker compares her heart, burgeoning with love, to images of perfect fulfillment from nature: a "singing bird" at home in a "watered shoot"; an "apple tree / Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit"; a "rainbow shell" paddling in "a halcyon sea." The second stanza moves indoors as the speaker orders preparations for the elaborate ceremonial celebration of "the birthday of my life," because "my love is come to me."
Raise me a dais of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me. [Poems, 1:36; 111/112]
Thus, the poem moves in interior directions away from descriptions of the natural world, perhaps because the idealized images of nature that appear in the first stanza carry with them the inevitability of their own disruption. The "singing bird" inhabits a "watered shoot," surrounded by dangerous turbulence. The apple tree with its "thickset fruit" bears weighty resonances of the Fall. The "rainbow shell" paddling in "a halcyon sea" is vulnerable, as a delicate object, to the changing moods of the potentially destructive ocean. These images of natural perfection are momentary and precarious, and the speaker's choice of them as analogues to her heart insists upon the transience of fulfilling love. The need to retreat from mutability is confirmed in stanza two, in which the speaker moves away from nature and orders the erection of what can alternately be perceived as a ceremonial platform, a bed, and an ornate memorial work of art. However, the ambiguity of the initial words of command in the stanza — "Raise me" — suggest resurrection and favor the last reading. The world of art into which the rejoicing speaker withdraws in stanza two serves as a bulwark against mutability while producing a celebratory monument. The rich artistic details of the "dais" overshadow the impulse of love that generates its gothic artifice (note, for instance, the use of the archaic "vair"), and those details, in contrast with the natural images of the poem's first stanza, imply that the only true and permanent fulfillment of love is to be found in the art it gives birth to.
Last modified July 2000