Friday, April 24, 2015

There shall be no more sea - Christina Rossetti writes poems about the sea

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:

Birchington Churchyard

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.


  1. I am familiar with a few poems (incl. Goblin Market), but not those you've discussed. You've piqued my interest.

    All the best from Crimes in the Library (hosted by the same fellow at the now defunct Beyond Eastrod).

  2. I know, "Goblin Market" sort of swamps the boat with Rossetti. But she is a fine poet her whole life. I wish I had a better grasp of her religious poems.

    Best of luck with the mysteries.

  3. Kingsley Amis (who called her "my beloved Christina Rossetti) and Philip Larkin both admired her poetry. It's a sign of the power of good writing that two people with so little in common with her could disregard their own opinions and personalities so easily when faced with her poems.

  4. They are not a pair I would have guessed, no.

  5. As to that Allen comment... Larkin and Hughes both admired the poems of Charles Causley, and I expect that may be a similar sort of surprise. But the loves of poets are often unexpected and not neatly in line with what we think of them. (And if you haven't read Causley, you should!)

    I usually read in a selected version of her poems, but don't know (or don't remember) these. Very interesting. The "clamorous waves" and the stanza beginning "Be stilled, my passionate heart / Old earth shall end" remind me of Yeats.

    Clearly she's referring to the new Jerusalem but whether she intends that "new earth" will literally have no sea is not clear to me from the excerpts--perhaps simply that the new Jerusalem will no longer hear a "wail of loss."

    1. Some otherwise-reasonable people find the sea to be chaotic and sinister, so she might mean it literally.

  6. CHarles Causley is new to me and, boy, my kind of poet. Many thanks!

    The sea becomes something psychological, doesn't it, some churning burden that will be gone in the next life. I love the image of the wailing sea, its hands raised, but I love it more side by side with "low-voiced creeping" sea of "Birchington Churchyard."

  7. Yes, I like it when poems talk to one another in a grouping.

    Causley is so, so good. He is one of the few recent poets that I can say has influenced my own poems. I can pick out several that feel Causley-inspired, and several of his images (changed but perceptible to me) have cropped up in both my poems and fiction. He's generative for me, and most 20th/21st century poets are not.

    The other underrated poet I often recommend from that era is Kathleen Raine. She has some lyric beauties, and I also love the energy in some of her spell poems.

  8. Okay, I have at least heard of Kathleen Raine.

  9. I just stumbled across this blog post as I was searching for one of Rossetti's "sea" poems. There seems to be some confusion, both in the post itself, and in some of the comments, about what all this sea imagery is about, anyway. Some are on the right track in identifying the sea with ideas of chaos, the unknown, the untamed, the terrifying... but it more directly connects with biblical imagery than anyone has suggested. In St John's Revelation, he says: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more" (Rev. 21.1). John goes on to talk about a time and place without pain, without sickness, without fear, without tears, where everything is in its right place, and God once again dwells with men, as was the case in the Garden of Eden. Throughout Scripture, the sea represents chaos, disorder, and terror (perhaps if you think of being in a 1st-century rinky-dink wooden boat on the Mediterranean, it will be clear why...) -- its absence is peace, order, and assurance. Sorry if I'm explaining things already known, but it seemed there was a fair bit of head-scratching going on, so maybe that's helpful to some...

  10. Confusion in the post can be taken for granted at Wuthering Expectations.

    I did not know that Rossetti was poeticizing "Revelations" - thanks for pointing that out.

  11. Well, it's a slightly obscure reference, I suppose, though it comes from what I think is one of the most profoundly beautiful passages in all of Scripture -- and one on which a lot of poetry riffs, and of which there are many beautiful musical settings (here's one of my favourite -- note the utter calm and still at the line "and there was no more sea": ). I appreciate that you're sharing your musings on literature! - Sarah Hogarth Rossiter

  12. Hmm, this recording actually sounds cleaner than the King's College one I linked before (they must have had brilliant sound folks setting up the mics, because St Paul's Cathedral swallows up and bounces sound around like a ginormous echo chamber -- if you're actually in the space, King's College Chapel sounds so much better!!).

  13. They both sound good to me! Is there no end to the great 20th century English choral music? Thanks for the links.

    And will I never learn that the book is "Revelation," singular? A perpetual error.