I have always liked the poetry of Christina Rossetti, Victorian England’s foremost female poet. Poetry ran in her genes. Her maternal grandfather had been a poet and translator; and, of course, so was her more famous brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who also excelled at art.
I like to think of her in conjunction with the American poet, Emily Dickinson, our most prominent woman poet; in fact, they share the same birth year, (1830). Both suffered losses in love and never married.
Both were raised in devoutly religious homes. Dickinson’s grandfather was prominent in founding Amherst College, initially a school to train ministers. Rossetti’s mother was an evangelical. Both wrote a cerebral poetry of ardent sensitivity to life around them.
But there are differences, too. Religiously, Dickinson proved rebellious; at times, even skeptical.
On the other hand, Rossetti’s poetry is replete in piety. Still, thematically both poets seem often preoccupied with retreat and mortality. Strikingly, several of their poems feature a persona speaking from the grave.
Here is a poem I’ve always liked and taught in my literature classes for many years. Maybe you will like it too:
The curtains were half drawn, the floor was swept
And strewn with rushes, rosemary and may
Lay thick upon the bed on which I lay,
Where thro’ the lattice ivy-shadows crept.
He leaned above me, thinking that I slept
And could not hear him; but I heard him say:
“Poor child, poor child”: and as he turned away
Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept.
He did not touch the shroud, or raise the fold
That hid my face, or take my hand in his,
Or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head:
He did not love me living but once dead
He pitied me; and very sweet it is
To know he still is warm tho’ I am cold.
In this poem, a deceased person reminisces her funeral. She recalls the man she loved, filled with pity, gazing at her corpse and weeping.
But there is disillusionment on the persona’s part: her friend did “not touch the shroud, or raise the fold/That hid my face, or take my hand in his,/or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head.” In short, he exhibited no commitment, even in the context of death. (It’s not what he does, but what he omits to do that matters here.) At best, his response proves ambiguous and we are left unsure his grief manifests love, for grief is not necessarily synonymous with love. We only know from the persona’s perspective that he “did not love me living.”
Ironically, the persona’s anguish eclipses that of the mourner, for what she yearned for in life was love and not the pity that comes from her death.
The poem’s last lines are saved from self-pity in their matter-of-factness: “He pitied me; and very sweet it is/To know he still is warm though I am cold.”
But the poem with its subtle “I am cold” also returns us to the theme of death and its inexorable alienation from life with which the poem opens. And even more: it hints at the persona’s repressed anguish in the close–“He still is warm though I am cold,” sparing these lines from their seeming sardonic, or derisive, tone. The truth she reaches for is that he did not make use of the opportunity to love her while she lived.
While pity may speak for the mourner’s potentiality for love, death has foreclosed on its possibility.
Mortality’s unction is that we fervently love while we can in this brief parenthesis of light.