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.