nine: Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market and Other Poems

Another apology for another late post. My excuse this time was being laid low all weekend (and yesterday and today) with illness. I need to start looking after myself a bit better, I think: 2008 so far seems to have been the year of sickness. Or perhaps someone’s been slipping me some goblin fruit…

I was pleased to be given Goblin Market and Other Poems for my birthday last month (thanks, Caroline), so as to slot in some non-contemporary poetry and slake my thirst for something a little older.

I studied Christina Rossetti (and specifically Goblin Market, her longest and most-discussed poem) at university – with Tom Paulin no less – but I have to confess, regretfully, that I can remember nothing about our tutorial, other than the suggestive boldness of these lines:

White and golden Lizzie stood,
Like a lily in a flood, –
Like a rock of blue-veined stone
Lashed by tides obstreperously, –
Like a beacon left alone
In a hoary roaring sea,
Sending up a golden fire, –
Like a fruit-crowned orange-tree
White with blossoms honey-sweet
Sore beset by wasp and bee, –
Like a royal virgin town
Topped with gilded dome and spire
Close beleaguered by a fleet
Mad to tug her standard down.

It’s a fascinating poem, open to all sorts of readings, particularly protofeminist ones; it’s also a complete joy to read, with its luscious fruit and rolling rhymes (not to mention the juiciness of the sexual undercurrents, and the rather sweet homoeroticism of the sisters).

Of course Rossetti is also well known for her religious poetry (which would include the poem/carol ‘In the bleak midwinter’), which I found deeply affecting, particularly ‘A bruised reed shall he not break’ and ‘A better resurrection’. Weirdly I’d always thought of Rossetti’s religious writing as a bit twee, but (for the most part) it’s pretty tough stuff – as would suit her evangelical nature I suppose – is it just the rhyme-schemes that fooled me?

I will accept thy will to do and be,
Thy hatred and intolerance of sin,
Thy will at least to love, that burns within
And thirsteth after Me:
So will I render fruitful, blessing still,
The germs and small beginnings in thy heart,
Because thy will cleaves to the better part.—
Alas, I cannot will. (from ‘A bruised reed shall he not break’)

Aside from the frankly brilliant ‘Goblin Market’, then, and the two mentioned just above, favourites were ‘A triad’, ‘Remember’, ‘An apple gathering’, ‘Another spring’, ‘Up-hill’, ‘The bourne’, and, because the sun dared to shine today amidst all the rain we’ve been having, ‘Spring’:

Frost-locked all the winter,
Seeds, and roots, and stones of fruits,
What shall make their sap ascend
That they may put forth shoots?
Tips of tender green,
Leaf, or blade, or sheath;
Telling of the hidden life
That breaks forth underneath,
Life nursed in its grave by Death.

Blows the thaw-wind pleasantly,
Drips the soaking rain,
By fits looks down the waking sun:
Young grass springs on the plain;
Young leaves clothe early hedgerow trees;
Seeds, and roots, and stones of fruits,
Swollen with sap put forth their shoots;
Curled-headed ferns sprout in the lane;
Birds sing and pair again.

There is no time like Spring,
When life’s alive in everything,
Before new nestlings sing,
Before cleft swallows speed their journey back
Along the trackless track—
God guides their wing,
He spreads their table that they nothing lack,—
Before the daisy grows a common flower,
Before the sun has power
To scorch the world up in his noontide hour.

There is no time like Spring,
Like Spring that passes by:
There is no life like Spring-life born to die,—
Piercing the sod,
Clothing the uncouth clod,
Hatched in the nest,
Fledged on the windy bough,
Strong on the wing;
There is no time like Spring that passes by,
Now newly born, and now
Hastening to die.

Illustration for the cover of Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862) by the poet’s brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market and Other Poems (Dover Publications, 1994)

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