Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What are brief? What are deep? - Christina Rossetti's nursery rhymes

This week at Wuthering Expectations:  educational literature.  Or literature about education.  Whatever.  I don’t care.

First up, the former, Christina Rossetti’s Sing-song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872).  I read this copy, housed at Indiana University.  I wanted an edition with the original illustrations by pre-Raphaelite painter Arthur Hughes.

Sing-song is not a great book, as a collection of Rossetti poetry or as something of interest to the youngsters of today, but it still has some interest to me.  Sometimes the Rossetti quality seeps through the poems.

Like here, p. 10:

I have no trouble hearing that this is the author of “In the bleak midwinter.”  Aside from the music of the poem, the specificity of the basket and the plant is appealing.  The “tombstone of snow” is almost too symbolically meaningful.

The snowberry bush, and the thrush, too, are part of the educational content of Sing-song.  Poems educate the littl’uns about flowers and birds, colors, sums, months, currency, time, and kindness to animals – again and again, kindness to animals.

I know that the point of the illustration is that the little boy – note his grisly snare in the background –  should leave the mole alone as well as the other critters, but given the mole’s central placement, and given that he is not mentioned in the poem, it is almost as if the poet is urging the mole to leave the worms and bugs alone, even taunting him by calling the beetle “fat.”  At least she omitted “juicy.”  Poor hungry mole.

Another sad example:

Hear what the mournful linnets say:
   “We built our nest compact and warm,
But cruel boys came round our way
   And took our summerhouse by storm.

“They crushed the eggs so neatly laid;
   So now we sit with drooping wing,
And watch the ruin they have made,
   Too late to build, too sad to sing.”  (14)

Poems like this one complement those about dead or dying children, of which there are at least eight.  The poems also have some value for mothers:

Crying, my little one, footsore and weary?
  Fall asleep, pretty one, warm on my shoulder:
I must tramp on through the winter night dreary,
  While the snow falls on me colder and colder.  (19)

Meanwhile the baby sleeps and dreams “of pretty things…  of pleasure.”

Rossetti also includes riddles and nonsense.  My favorite example of the latter, when a bit of nightmarish Carrollian surrealism intrudes:

The riddles can have their own beauty.  This example has obvious rhymes and sentiments, but is pleasingly sonorous:

What are heavy?  sea-sand and sorrow:
What are brief?  to-day and tomorrow:
What are frail?  spring blossoms and youth:
What are deep?  the ocean and truth.  (34)

I am perhaps making the book sound better than it really is.  Most of the poems are trivial, merely cute, no different than in a hundred other similar books.  The Poetry Foundation singles out this one for some reason:

Mix a pancake,
Stir a pancake,
    Pop it in the pan;
Fry the pancake,
Toss the pancake, –
    Catch it if you can.

Not that I am against pancakes – what a terrible thing to even suggest – but I do not think it required the genius of Christina Rossetti to come up with that poem.

Still, I went looking for Rossetti and found her.


  1. My familiarity with Rossetti is limited -- Goblin Market and a handful of others -- so I am on shaky ground here. But I an intrigued by your posting, and I am going to dig around for information about what Rossetti was up to with this publication. Children's book? Needed the money? Something just for the hell of it? Channeling William Blake's Songs of Innocence? Playing with Lewis Carroll's style? As I said, I am terra incognita. Perhaps you can fill in my blank spaces.

  2. A genuine children's book, yes. Carroll and Blake are good references. Christina's brother was one of the leaders of the Blake revival.

  3. "I do not think it required the genius of Christina Rossetti to come up with that poem"
    But when we know she came up with it we read it differently. In fact, it's a very good succinct description of how all human activities - pancakes or poetry- can so easily go wrong at any point in their making.
    Kingsley Amis referred to "my beloved Christina Rossetti". I was mildly astonished when I first read this; a less probable admirer and a less probable admired are hard to imagine. When we know of this admiration, though, we can see and understand the virtues that inspired the admiration and see how important those qualities are.

  4. I suppose, Roger, you have identified why I read this book in the first place.

  5. More from the greatest critic of Rossetti and his Circle- Max Beerbohm- featuring Chtistina here: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/mb/dgrcircle12.html

  6. Are you a fan of the pre-Raphaelites Tom?

  7. Roger, thanks.

    Guy - of the pre-Raphaelite poets, yes.

    1. Me--it's the painters. Well and Tennyson.

    2. William Holman Hunt is for me the epitome of Victorian bad taste. Or non-Orientalist Victorian bad taste. Alan Hollinghurst used Hunt as a punching bag in The Line of Beauty - I was cheering him on. But I do like DG Rossetti's painting pretty well. Millais is somewhere in between.

      Sadly I have only seen a few of the paintings in person. Someday I will go to London and take a closer look. Could change my mind, who knows.

    3. Maybe add "who was an older contemporary of the pre-Raphaelites."

      The great Cecil Lang pre-Raphaelite anthology has DG & C Rossetti, Morris, Meredith, and Swinburne. Fitzgerald was in the first edition but got bumped. There is a Penguin Classics anthology with the above plus Patmore and lots of painters - everyone wrote poetry back then - and many people I've never heard of. John Tupper? "today has been almost entirely forgotten"

  8. I love Christian Rossetti, but I do find her uneven.

  9. Uneven, yes, although not moreso than her contemporaries. Maybe less so.

  10. Lots of death, as one expects from the time. I often find myself skirting death when reading older compilations for children to my own children. Today's children are not as familiar with death, I think (Although I do reread The Happy Prince (my favourite children's story) every so often despite it even bringing tears to my own eyes, and my son, although upset, loves it too. (What that has to do with Rossetti is none too certain (and opening new brackets becomes quickly addictive (I shouldn't comment late at night)))).

  11. I have read that even some contemporary critics considered Rossetti's book to be a bit morbid. But I don't know. It fit, or reinforced, my idea of its time.

    I haven't read Wilde's story. I'll have to correct that someday. The brackets did their job, I think.

  12. OK, Wilde's children's stories are added to the list.