Thursday, September 5, 2013

That lowest place too high, make one more low - Christina Rossetti in book form

I seem not to have written about poetry for a while.  I will bet I had a good reason, although I do not remember it.  Christina Rossetti’s second book, The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems from 1866 will be the book of the moment.  I do not believe I wrote anything about her debut, the 1862 Goblin Market and Other Poems, so perhaps I will glance at it as well.

No, not  perhaps – necessarily.  The comparison is too clear.  Each book begins with the long title poem, each a puzzling fantasy, follows with a series of lyrics – Rossetti is a most songful poet – and ends with a group of devotional poems.  “Goblin Market” is better than “The Prince’s Progress.”  The lyric poems are not so much better poem by poem more varied in the first book as more varied.  The Prince’s Progress is monotonous.  The religious poems – I am not such a good reader of the religious poems.  They all seem good.

Let’s try one of those.

The Lowest Place

Give me the lowest place: not that I dare
    Ask for that lowest place, but Thou hast died
That I might live and share
    Thy glory by Thy side.

Give me the lowest place: or if for me
    That lowest place too high, make one more low
Where I may sit and see
    My God and love Thee so.

The anthologies I have poked around in select lots of poems from Goblin Market and between few and none from Prince’s Progress.  As usual, my judgment turns out to be tediously conventional.  The 5th Edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature skips the book completely.  Cecil Lang’s old The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Circle picks just one poem, this one, “The Lowest Place.”

It is almost ur-Rossetti.  Christina the Christian martyr.  In the secular poems, her characters martyr themselves to a lover, in the Christian poems to Christ.  I do not know of another poem as bald about the matter as this one.  The first stanza seems conventional, but the second, where the poet decides she has not gone far enough in her degradation, is astounding, psychologically intense and uncomfortable.  An entire book of poems of female martyrdom is in some ways unpleasant, even when composed by a genius.

Where is the poetry in “The Lowest Place”?  It seems like it is all in the rhythm of the poem, purely iambic but pleasingly varied if read conversationally.  It is almost too simple to do much else, aside from the alliteration, and parallel construction, and  - of course once I start poking at it, more falls out.  I am simultaneously reading, or at least gazing upon, the poetry of Algernon Swinburne, exactly contemporary to Christina Rossetti, and I realize that his baroque gibberish makes everyone else look simple, so I will abandon that line of thought.  There will be plenty more to see in Rossetti’s poems.


  1. I've not read much Rossetti but I really like your description of her as a "songful poet." The Lowest Place is a very uncomfortable poem especially for a modern reader. I wonder what contemporary readers would make of such devotion and the desire to be further degraded before God?

  2. "a very uncomfortable poem especially for a modern reader"

    Ain't that the truth? In this day and age, humility is seen as a sucker's game. Although I might wonder what age hasn't been the age of pride.

    The only Rossetti I know is "The Goblin Market," and it's pretty good stuff.

  3. Rossetti is among the greatest English-language poets of her century but like many of her peers - Whitman, Dickinson, Browning - she is kinda weird.

    A contemporary reader - some contemporary readers - was likely to take the gesture of humility more literally, as spiritually necessary abnegation of pride. But we read it psychologically, right, or socially? How can we not, especially when it is one of dozens of Rossetti poems on the subject. It is her aesthetic. Elegant, well-crafted, even beautiful poems of renunciation.

    "Goblin Market" is justly famous. Yes, good stuff. I may not mention it after this post. It has become a landmark. I will just write in its shadow.

  4. I realize that his [Swinburne's] baroque gibberish makes everyone else look simple. Them's fighting words:

    From the depths of the green garden-closes
    Where the summer in darkness dozes
    Till autumn pluck from his hand
    An hour-glass that holds not a sand;
    How red was the reign of the roses
    Over the rose-crowned land!

  5. Is the argument with "baroque" or "gibberish" or "simple"? I hope with "gibberish."

    Swinburne is even more musical than C. Rossetti. "How red was the reign of the roses." Trill those RRRs!

    Let's argue about Swinburne next week. What do you do with Atalanta in Calydon? Holy cow.

  6. for Max Beerbohm's vision of Christina and her brother. Today Rossetti and Her Circle would be a more likely title.

  7. I completely agree. It is surprising to see that C. Rossetti gets the fewest pages of any poet in Lang's book. It is surprising no one has put together a more up-to-date competitor.

    Thanks for the link to the typically enjoyable Beerbohm.

  8. I have not read Rossetti.

    I think that I really understand what you mean about an entire book written on this subject being a bit disquieting. Though the lines you quoted are indeed phenomenal.

  9. Rossetti is really one of the best. So she's a little narrow, who isn't?