- Christina Rossetti: A Biography by Frances Thomas
Virago, 448 pp, £9.99, February 1994, ISBN 1 85381 681 7
The sad ballad has always given satisfaction, whether it was a Last Goodnight, or seeing your love dressed all in white, but come back only from the grave. The Victorians revelled in it. Stephen Foster’s audience grieved for Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, the lost one ‘who comes not again’. The big Romantics all had their more portentous versions, from Lucy ceasing to be, to Shelley’s solipsistic sad heart, filled with grief ‘but with delight/No more, oh nevermore’. Poe’s sardonic raven enunciated ‘Nevermore’ as a standard formula. Tennyson’s most popular poem mourned for the touch of a vanished hand.
But some 19th-century poets, chiefly women, wrote them with a light touch, enigmatically, giving the formula much more sophistication, and a kind of unspoken hint of detail. Suddenly the Nevermore formula became like a mystery story: haunting words that seemed to present a puzzle calling for research and detection. Just who is it who comes not again?
Come to me in the silence of the night;
Come in the speaking silence of a dream;
Come with soft rounded cheeks and eyes as bright
As sunlight on a stream;
Come back in tears,
O memory, hope, love of finished years.
Wonderful lines, but do they actually refer to anyone specific? Part of their magic seems to depend on tantalising the reader with the tacit suggestion that they do. Emily Dickinson made quite a speciality of this, in lines which often have something of the giggle in them of an affectedly self-conscious children’s game: ‘I love to hide and hear ’em hunt.’ Hearing them hunt becomes the poet’s pleasure, and a source of teasing power. For Emily Brontë the passions of Gondal (‘Cold in the earth, and fifteen wild Decembers’) carried the arrested detail and pathos of childhood into adult life. For her, too, love-regret could be an absorbing and solitary game. Not so, one feels, for Christina Rossetti, whose love poems may equally be sphinxes without any real secret, and yet with no hint of fantasy or teasing. They are always grave and unselfconscious, impersonal, calm both with sorrow and with belief.
Those heavy-lidded Italian eyes look always a little weary, like the Mona Lisa’s, but Christina Rossetti was not really a sad person. She was a merry, irascible child, and merry as an old woman, though in between there were bouts of what seems to have been almost clinical depression. What came to her in the silence of the night was as much a vision of religious comfort as the memory of lost love, or love not found. One could almost say that she discovered early the right poetic convention to work in. But as with other poets of her temperament and period, and especially women poets, the reader always has the desire to know more of what may have inspired the poems. In this admirably sensitive and also very sensible biography Frances Thomas goes over the known ground, and makes some shrewd suggestions of her own. She is an excellent scholar of the period, and she writes with humour, clarity and restraint.
In spite of their Italian looks and background the Rossettis were wholly English in lifestyle and temperament: a close family, cheerful, upright, staunch Anglicans, not in the least bohemian. Though never affluent (some relatives were), they were reasonably well off until Christina’s father Gabriele fell ill and became nearly blind and had to stop teaching. Gabriel, the eldest and always the favoured one, continued as an art student, but William, the younger brother, had to give up the idea of being a doctor and take a post in the Excise; it seemed that Maria and her young sister Christina would have to become governesses. In fact Christina never did, but the prospect was grim, and the secure and happy time of childhood came to an abrupt end. Frances Thomas makes the point that there may be a parallel between the way in which the young Sylvia Plath lost her father through death, and Christina hers when he withdrew into illness and impotence within the family. At 18, Sylvia Plath wrote in her journal about being ‘conditioned as a child to the lovely never-never land of magic, of fairy queens and virginal maidens ... To go from this to the world of grown-up reality ... what a pathetic blighting of the beauty and reality of childhood.’
At about the same age Christina Rossetti met her first love. She was not yet 18 when Gabriel’s friend and fellow art student James Collinson took an interest in her. A quiet, meek little chap from a philistine Midlands family, he was to join the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood for a while, hover between Anglicanism and Catholicism, and paint rather good genre pictures, the chief of which, St Elizabeth of Hungary, is now in Johannesburg. For Sale is a Tate Gallery postcard, though not itself on display. In effect he was to jilt Christina, though the fiction was kept up that she broke off the engagement. He thought of becoming a Jesuit priest, but gave that up too, and eventually married a Catholic girl and settled down in Camberwell. So quiet and self-effacing was he, though with a small dry wit like her own, that Christina’s more spirited biographers prefer to locate her real joy and grief in an adulterous passion for his friend William Bell Scott. But Collinson was her first love; and as A.E. Housman (who should have known) observed, those who think there can be more than one have never known what love is all about.
Certainly there was love, however meagre the appearances of it; and each other’s quietness must have suited them too. All the more poignant that, as Frances Thomas puts it, the immature girl was ‘a child looking for a child’s sweetheart’. Wholly reliant on her mother and sister, she might never have found the strength to actually get married, and if she had, would have vanished into the dumb underworld of Victorian domesticity: no poems, no legends, no haunting regrets. In the bustling, sanguine world of the young Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, with its delightful silly manifestoes and its short-lived magazine the Germ, to which she contributed verses, Christina Rossetti must have found her lover’s mouse-like intimacies a relief; and one which set off her real but different pleasure in being one of the gang, and close in a different way to her colourful and talkative brothers. She modelled the Virgin for Gabriel, but asked William for all the details about St Elizabeth of Hungary, in whom she now felt a ‘special interest’. She clung to what she could, for the home which they could no longer afford no longer felt secure; and she hated that sort of change, making a pathetic little joke of it as she was carried out house-hunting by her mother and sister. ‘Today it is raining fast, so perhaps we may remain at house: I will not say home.’
Her next suitor was, on the face of it, a much more attractive proposition, though Charles Cayley seems to have had something in common with Collinson: quietness, absentness, the habit of living in himself. He was also a brilliant linguist and able mathematician. Her brothers thought so well of the match – by that time Christina was getting on, in marriageable terms – that William even offered them a home with himself and his wife (what William’s wife felt about that is not recorded). But Christina turned Cayley down eventually, and the absent-minded little man – both her suitors, unlike her handsome brothers, were small and insignificant in appearance – doesn’t seem to have minded particularly. He drifted off and yet continued to hang around. On her 18th birthday Christina Rossetti had written for Collinson what Frances Thomas calls ‘one of the strangest yet most beautiful engagement gifts any young man has ever received’:
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree;
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dew-drops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
This seems to me like a tender joke, as well as a marvellous poem; and if they shared the same sense of humour, as they seem to have done, both would have appreciated it. About the time she turned down Cayley she wrote a different sort of poem:
I have a sister, I have a brother,
A faithful hound, a tame white dove;
But I had another, once I had another,
And I miss him, my love, my love.
As words about missingness, whoever is missed, and why ever, these are more purely and simply moving than almost anything else in the same line. And what other poet in English has ever caught quite so exactly, and with less fuss, the break in the syllabic voice, and the catch in the throat? The repetitions are perfect.
All the same she was very fond of Cayley, and she seems to have been much amused by, and perhaps attracted to, his bumbling tendency not to notice her particularly, or be responsive. Perhaps he reminded her of the other one; or, as another poem suggests (‘The Blindest Buzzard that I Know’), unconsciously stimulated her humour in the same way. A secret shared humour is no doubt one thing you might miss particularly.
My special mole, when will you see?
Oh no, you must not look at me,
There’s nothing hid for me to show.
I might show facts as plain as day;
But since your eyes are blind you’d say:
Where? What? And turn away.
One wonders what Cayley made of that, if he ever read it. How nice to have been ‘my special mole’ for a Christina. But no doubt he did not notice – perhaps she did not intend him to notice – and no doubt it was her first love that he made her miss.
It is fashionable to make a great song and dance about the sexual imagery of ‘Goblin Market’ (the title was suggested by her brother Gabriel) and it is exceedingly difficult for a modern reader to feel back, rather than think back, to a time in a repressed age when sexuality was none the less sprawling about all over art, and nobody (like Cayley again) noticed particularly; not even the artist. Of course one cannot be sure of that: they may have been secretly revelling in it, but that doesn’t appear to be likely. Certainly the language seems splendidly shameless: most effectively so, not at the gorging moments (‘She sucked and sucked and sucked the more’) or those of near-rape, but when the words tremble between conventional beauty and secret abandonment:
Laura stretched her gleaming neck
Like a rush-embedded swan
Like a lily from the beck,
Like a moonlit poplar branch
Like a vessel at the launch
When its last restraint is gone.
Probably the Victorians, and the author herself, enjoyed the gluttonously intense drama of ‘Goblin Market’ without knowing or caring how close to pornography the pleasure was. ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, as Frances Thomas observes, had been enjoyed by Keats and his readers in the same way. Even the title is significant, suggested as it was by the artist brother who had written a poem about the market in fallen girls. But ‘Jenny’ is nothing like so erotic in feeling as the poem that Christina Rossetti had wanted to call ‘A Peep at the Goblins’. And in her quiet way she was the better artist.
For her next collection, The Prince’s Progress, which came out in 1864, Gabriel persuaded her to expand to ‘Goblin Market’ length a short poem she had written called ‘The Fairy Prince Who Arrived Too Late’.
Too late for love, too late for joy,
Too late, too late!
You loitered on the road too long,
You trifled at the gate.
But the result is not happy, for like Hardy or Larkin, Christina Rossetti depended on the brief suggestion rather than the extended metaphor. Coleridge said that ‘The Ancient Mariner’ had ‘too much moral’; and the same is true of her long poems, though excitement and intensity carry ‘Goblin Market’, like Coleridge, through to the point where the moral no longer matters. In Christina Rossetti’s case, however, it reminds us (‘For there is no friend like a sister’) how closely she depended on and was tied to the family, to the clergymen who now fathered and guided it, and to the Church.
Gabriel Rossetti meanwhile was growing tired of Lizzie Siddal, once his beloved ‘Guggums’; but being in his own curious way as upright as Christina herself, he decided to marry Lizzie, who had become a laudanum addict, and to look after her. Poor Lizzie, who had some talent, imitated Gabriel in her drawing and Christina in her poems, which sometimes, none the less, had an edge of their own.
And turn away thy false dark eyes
Nor gaze into my face:
Great love I bore thee; now great hate
Sits grimly in its place.
Lizzie Siddal came from a respectable background but had no less of a raw deal than an adopted girl off the street would have done, although Ruskin became her aesthetic champion from outside, and may have helped to persuade Gabriel to marry her. The Rossetti ladies were not hostile, though certainly not helpful either; and when, after a cheerful dinner with her husband in Leicester Square, Lizzie was found comatose and died, probably with a note pinned to her nightdress, they braced themselves, more in anxiety for Gabriel than in regret for his wife. Further anxieties were to follow when Gabriel took to the new wonder drug chloral, then thought to be harmless, and was found hallucinating in Cheyne Row. Even the rock-like mother and William, the calm family anchorman, were in despair; and William wrote a kind of prose variation of one of his sister’s poems in his usually imperturbable diary – ‘an end, an end, an end of all ...’ before shutting it up for good.
Christina saw both her old suitors die and on the anniversary of Cayley’s death wrote a poem beginning:
Bury Hope out of sight,
No book for it and no bell;
It never could bear the light
Even while growing and well.
As so often, the supple movement of her verse suggests a kind of hidden hilarity, which comes out too in her mastery of the hanging rhyme, slipping into view with a half-smile at the end of an intricate stanza. The humour is not far from that of Hardy, who, as his sister dryly remarked, so much enjoyed being miserable; or from that of Larkin himself. Both also use the ‘sad ballad’ technique, Hardy at his most poignant when he does it retrospectively, as in the poems to dead Emma, who after her departure acquires all the vividness of the one never met, or loved only from afar, the one celebrated in Rossetti’s poem ‘Somewhere or Other’:
Somewhere or other there must surely be
The face not seen, the voice not heard.
And the unmistakable tone is developed and enjoyed in the stealthy magic of a Larkin verse like ‘No Road’:
Since we agreed to let the road between us
Fall to disuse,
And bricked our gates up, planted trees to screen us,
And turned all time’s eroding agents loose.
Later poets have learned more from Christina Rossetti, and the subtle but wholly individual turn her poetry gives to the theme of deprivation (Eliot’s theme as well as Larkin’s) than they have usually admitted. Dynamic love poetry, Donne’s or Browning’s, celebrates the loved one in its own satisfactions, from outside or from afar – Donne even tells her not to worry about him, or ‘forethink me any ill’ – but what poetry has seemed to miss someone more than Christina Rossetti’s? And missing someone or something is normally one of the commonest and most inarticulate aspects of being alive.