John Bayley

  • 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.

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