POETS Day! Christina Georgina Rossetti

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

POETS Day will sneak up on you if you let it. That doesn’t absolve you of your duties, of course. You still have to meet your obligations and do the day’s thing: Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday. Just know that there are those of us who understand that sometimes a mid-afternoon escape from work will not benefit from a well thought out plan. You have to summon inspiration and work with the tools you find laying about. Thankfully those who intend to weasel out of the office before official release is granted probably mastered the art of the faked illness as a kid in order to get out of school, so they’ve seen a lot of mid-morning I Love Lucy reruns. That rascally redhead taught them three very important things. First, if you want something there is no limit to the amount of humiliation you are willing to endure to get it. Second, the only thing keeping you from a career in showbusiness is that smooth-talking, spotlight-hogging husband of yours. Third, whatever the consequences of your actions, they will not be so dire as to deter you from trying something as equally ill-advised seven days later, assuming the advertisers are still on board. Focus on the benefits of risking your source of income by lying to your boss and leaving your co-workers in the lurch for a few Friday afternoon hours. Ignore your conscience. Consciences are problematic. They keep people from doing great things like sticking with their mentor to rule the galaxy side by side just because he’s mean to their kid.

Fake temporary aphasia, cake oatmeal on your arm and claim leprosy, freak out saying “How?… No… I can’t move again…” when the UPS guy or a customer you’ve never seen before comes into the office and make sure and tell anyone who will listen that you are definitely not in the witness relocation program while safely cowering under your desk. Do whatever you must to kickstart your weekend and get out of there. Roll with the bon temps. But first, take in a little verse to stir your impulsive creativity.

Was Christina Rossetti touched in the head? I don’t think so, but there are those that do. Most of her peculiarities (all of them that I’m aware of, but I’ll hedge my bets and assume that she had a few eyebrow-raising habits that didn’t make any of the biographical material I’ve read) stemmed from religious belief, or rather, in my armchair psychologist opinion, an inability to satisfy her need to satisfy her religious belief. Fear was certainly a factor. Early in life she took ill and, though some have written that this illness was only in her mind, lived much of her life in fear that she was not destined to live a very long life. She was a practicing Anglican but embraced the stricter practices of the Oxford Movement, a counter-counter-reformation writ small led by members of the high clergy that felt a reintroduction of Roman rites and practices would do the church some good. She refused the Pre-Raphaelite painter James Collinson’s proposal of marriage due to his Catholicism, accepted upon his conversion to her rite, and then broke it off when he lapsed back into Catholicism. Like with the Oxford Movement, she was perfectly willing to flirt with Rome, but remained true to her Anglicanism.

As is noted at poetryfoundation.org, “As an adult Christina Rossetti was considered by many to be overscrupulous and excessively restrained.” Later in life she would pick up bits of paper she found littering the streets on the off chance that the name of Christ might be written on one and by touching the ground be a desecration. That may have been a mania. It was certainly manic, but was it because of a mental defect, or a compulsion developed after years struggling to fulfill a need to be cleansed of a sin for which she would not let herself be forgiven?

Christina Georgina Rossetti writes often of falling to temptation and the consequences that follow. If we are to assume that Christina Georgina Rossetti wrote of these things from experience – and I’d be staggered if anyone were to make a case otherwise – she was haunted by a youthful decision to have sex outside of marriage. I’d wager that it was not the sin so much as that she was exhilarated in the moment. I suspect that she could accept that people, including herself, make poor decisions. She was to be generous with her time caring for London’s “fallen women.” I think she saw them as redeemable but could not escape the remembrance of joy she found in her own fallen moment and could not reconcile that with the penitence she felt was required.

“Goblin Market,” her most acclaimed poem and the titular entry from the collection Goblin Market and Other Poems, is a story about two sisters named Laura and Lizzie. One night Laura gives in to temptation and steals away to the Goblin Market, partakes of their fruit and has a blast. She returns to her sister telling tales of how wonderful her time at the market was. Laura soon takes ill and would have died were it not for her sister’s efforts to save her. There is mention of the girls’ lost friend: “She thought of Jeanie in her grave,/Who should have been a bride;/But who for joys brides hope to have/Fell sick and died”.

In the same collection, there is an outlier. Again from poetryfoundation.org, “Indeed, with the exception of “A Birthday“ and its ecstatic declaration that “the birthday of my life / Is come, my love is come to me,” little evidence exists anywhere in the volume that human love is satisfied or satisfying.” It’s practically a Hallmark card full of sweetness and light about a woman in moment of pure happiness compared to the rest of the book. Were you to open the Goblin’s Market and Other Poems having never read it before and start randomly with “A Birthday” and then turn to the next page and read “Remember,” a poem about death and the weight of loss, you’d think you watched in quadruple time the transformation of a young girl euphorically playing with her My Little Pony collection to a moody fishnet stocking clad teen bummed that the tattoo parlor won’t give her the weeping spider web tat her boyfriend Scorpio drew for her because they don’t buy her fake ID. It is an expression of unrestrained happiness. Once context is established the poem is the sin; that moment where she showed regret only in retrospect as a poem that captures a moment unblemished by the regret that must wait to arise.

This week’s poem, “An Apple Gathering,” is also from The Goblin Market and Other Poems. It’s about a woman who gives to temptation. She “plucked the pink blossoms” from her apple tree prematurely so her tree grew fruitlessly as her neighbors’ trees were bountiful. As with Laura in “The Goblin Market,” she is initially happy with her decision, wearing the flowers “all that evening in my hair.” Oddly, among the happy fruit gatherers described in later stanzas are sisters named Lilian and Lilias with “heaped-up baskets.” It can’t be an accident that there are two sets of sisters with the same initials “L” in different poems about indulging the promises of temptation. In “The Goblin Market” Lizzie was able to redeem her sister Laura and they both went on to become wives and mothers. I think the reader is reminded of the first sisters and led to infer that one of the second set, either Lilian or Lilias, has also sinned at one point in her past, but here she is with the rest of the neighbors carrying on as if her trespass was washed from her. Rossetti seems to convey that the heroine of “An Apple Gathering” believes she can be forgiven as she has witnessed the sisters, but like Rossetti herself, is unwilling to believe she has earned salvation.

In the April 26, 1862 issue of The Athenaeum comments of the collected poems “To read these poems after the laboured and skilful but not original verse which has been issued of late, is like passing from a picture gallery, with its well-feigned semblances of nature, to the real nature out-of-doors which greets us with the waving grass and the pleasant shock of the breeze.” “An Apple Gathering” is beautiful. It stands out here even among the other impressive entries highlighting Rossetti’s excellent ear. I really hope you enjoy this poem as much as I do.

An Apple Gathering

Christina Georgina Rossetti 1830 – 1894)

I plucked pink blossoms from mine apple-tree
And wore them all that evening in my hair:
Then in due season when I went to see
I found no apples there.

With dangling basket all along the grass
As I had come I went the selfsame track:
My neighbours mocked me while they saw me pass
So empty-handed back.

Lilian and Lilias smiled in trudging by,
Their heaped-up basket teased me like a jeer;
Sweet-voiced they sang beneath the sunset sky,
Their mother’s home was near.

Plump Gertrude passed me with her basket full,
A stronger hand than hers helped it along;
A voice talked with her through the shadows cool
More sweet to me than song.

Ah Willie, Willie, was my love less worth
Than apples with their green leaves piled above?
I counted rosiest apples on the earth
Of far less worth than love.

So once it was with me you stooped to talk
Laughing and listening in this very lane:
To think that by this way we used to walk
We shall not walk again!

I let me neighbours pass me, ones and twos
And groups; the latest said the night grew chill,
And hastened: but I loitered, while the dews
Fell fast I loitered still.

1 thought on “POETS Day! Christina Georgina Rossetti

  1. Pingback: A Quick Note on the Rossetti POETS Day Post | The Columbo Game

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