Sonnets are full of love, and this my tome
Has many sonnets: so here now shall be
One sonnet more…
The book has so many sonnets. Christina Rossetti tells the truth. The book is A Pageant and Other Poems (1881, the same year as her brother’s Ballads and Sonnets – so many sonnets), her third book of poems not counting devotional works and books for children and so on, and the least of them for reasons which include the large number of sonnets.
Christina Rossetti was facing the same problems as her brother, the same problems as every English-language poet. There was a mismatch between the available forms and language of post-Romantic poetry and what poets were trying to express about themselves or their world. Even as strong a poet as Christina Rossetti was affected.
I suppose I ought to defend this idea at some point. Reading a cluster of poets from the period it seems blatant, analogous to the exactly contemporary “crisis of Impressionism.”
Rossetti responded in two ways. One was a reconnection with form, thus all of the sonnets, including many sonnet sequences, but also “The Months: A Pageant,” an allegorical poetic calendar that is the most conventional, kitschy Rossetti I have ever read. It does have this marvelous stage direction:
[July retires into a shrubbery.]
The other response was Rossetti’s turn to devotional poetry and other devotional works, so that half of A Pageant is religious poetry. Her next, and last, book of poems, Verses (1893) consists entirely of devotional poems. I am not such a good reader of these poems, and I do not plan to read all of Verses, although I have paged through it. There are wonders, lines like “Steeped in this rotten world I fear to rot” (l.8 of “I, Lord, Thy foolish sinner low and small”) and poems like the sequence of three sea poems beginning with “Was Thy Wrath against the Sea?”
The sea laments with unappeasable
Hankering wail of loss,
Lifting its hands on high and passing by
Out of the lovely light:
No foambow any more may crest that swell
Of clamorous waves which toss;
Lifting in hands on high it passes by
From light into the night. (ll. 1-8)
The poet tells the sea to reconcile itself with God’s purpose (“God doeth right”), yet the next poem is “And there was no more Sea,” and the third repeats the phrase:
Be stilled, my passionate heart;
Old earth shall end, new earth shall be:
Be still, and earn they part
Where shall be no more sea. (ll. 9-12)
My difficulty with the devotional poems is that they are intentionally functional, meant to provide solace and aid worship, with imagery drawn from the (large, rich) pool of Christian tradition. Yet, these sea poems – unconventional, personally expressive.
I read A Pageant but have barely mentioned it, and did not read Verses but am quoting from it. I will say that the non-devotional poems from the earlier book, setting aside the longer allegorical stuff, are as good as the usual Christina Rossetti, which at this point meant better than anyone publishing poems in English. This sea poem – not devotional, something else – was added to the 1888 edition of the book:
A lowly hill which overlooks a flat,
Half sea, half country side;
A flat-shored sea of low-voiced creeping tide
Over a chalky weedy mat.
A hill of hillocks, flowery and kept green
Round crosses raised for hope,
With many-tinted sunsets where the slope
Faces the lingering western sheen.
A lowly hope, a height that is but low,
While Time sets solemnly,
While the tide rises of Eternity,
Silent and neither swift nor slow.
This poem is followed by one titled “One Sea-side Grave.” The grave is that of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.