Monday, September 9, 2013

What do you do there? – what have you found? - a glance at Rossetti's aesthetics of renunciation

What I have been finding in Christina Rossetti – this is hardly unusual for Wuthering Expectations – is nothing like a new discovery.  This is her brother William:  “She was replete with the spirit of self-postponement.”  The more I read in and around Christina Rossetti and her circle, the more I understand that they all actually wrote, talked, and thought like this.  That was a digression.  I pulled the quote from the Rossetti introduction of my Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 2, 5th ed., p. 1502, where I also find the critics Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar saying Rossetti created “an aesthetics of renunciation.”

They are suggesting something more complicated than subject matter, but rather an approach to poetry.  The monotony of theme is countered by the variety of setting and form.

I guess this is a sort of side note since it would take too long, and be too dull, to support the argument, but Rossetti must be one of the great masters of form in the language.  She does the subtlest things with line length, for example.  Perhaps some of this is visible in my excerpts.  Rossetti wrote in what must have been a competitive period.  Everyone was working in Tennyson’s shadow, I suppose, so you had to outdo him to be noticed.

So I will drop back to the poem’s setting, which is easier.  I am thinking not of the  setting of a novel, but the setting of a diamond.  A lonely, self-denying diamond.

In “The Queen of Hearts,” the setting is domestic, even humorous.  Two women are playing cards, and the speaker spins out the metaphor that her opponent, lucky in cards and love (unlike the poet), always draws the queen of hearts:

It baffles me to puzzle out the clue,
Which must be skill, or craft, or luck in you:
      Unless, indeed, it be
      Natural affinity.

The affinity of Rossetti’s heroines lies elsewhere.  Her speakers are often ghosts:

“I go home alone to my bed,
Dug deep at the foot and deep at the head,
Roofed in with a load of lead,
Warm enough for the forgotten dead.” (“The Poor Ghost”)

Or are speaking to ghosts:

“What do you do there, underground,
    In the dark hollow?  I’m fain to follow.
What do you do there? – what have you found?” –  (“The Ghost’s Petition”)

Ballads, songs, seasons, fairy tales, dreams, nature poems – all lead to negation and sacrifice:

Then as their plumes fell fluttering to the ground,
    Their snow-white  plumage flecked with crimson drops,
        I wept, and thought I turned towards you to weep:
    But you were gone; while rustling hedgerow tops
Bent in a wind which bore to me a sound
        Of far-off piteous bleat of lambs and sheep.  (“On the Wing”)

These have all been from The Prince’s Progress.  In that book, the selection of non-devotional poems ends with a surprise, a long narrative poem about illegitimacy, “’The Iniquity of the Fathers upon the Children,’” told by a character who works as a servant for her well-born mother, her parentage a secret to the world.  Whatever kinship the poem might have in its novelistic detail to, say, Elizabeth Gaskell, in the end it is a Rossetti poem:

But nameless as I stand,
My hand is my own hand,
And nameless as I came
I go to the dark land.

“All equal in the grave” –
I bide my time till then:
“All equal before God” –
Today I feel His rod,
Tomorrow he may save:

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