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Selected Poems: Christina Rossetti

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Christina Rossetti was in a sense the first poet of the Pre-Raphaelites, her Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862) having been - as if by accident - the writing from that group which first caught public attention. It contains many of her best poems. Later work - devotional poems, love lyrics and descriptive pieces - extended the themes and forms of her first remarkable collection. It is remarkable, but in a quiet and intense way, not in the manner of those who seem to have learned from her among her contemporaries. Ford Madox Ford, who had a subtle ear for the unemphatic excellence of the nineteenth-century writers, called her 'the most valuable poet that the Victorian age produced'. Her modern admirers are many, especially among the poets. Philip Larkin speaks of her poetry as 'unequalled for its objective expression of happiness denied and a certain unfamiliar steely stoicism'. In this selection C.H. Sisson presents a wide range of her work and in his biographical and critical introduction suggests fresh perspectives on it. Sisson also includes here Rossetti's long-unavailable 'Maude, A Story for Girls', which was written when she was very young and gives some indication of her cast of mind and her skills as a writer of prose fiction. The character of Maude is a severe self-portrait, wry at her own expense. As Sisson says, 'with any poet the starting-point, social as well as literary, is worth finding out about'.

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COUPLET

ePub

‘Come cheer up, my lads, ’tis to glory we steer’–

As the soldier remarked whose post lay in the rear.

 

MARY MAGDALENE

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She came in deep repentance,

    And knelt down at His feet

Who can change the sorrow into joy,

    The bitter into sweet.

She had cast away her jewels

    And her rich attire,

And her breast was filled with a holy shame,

    And her heart with a holy fire.

Her tears were more precious

    Than her precious pearls–

Her tears that fell upon His feet

    As she wiped them with her curls.

Her youth and her beauty

    Were budding to their prime;

But she wept for the great transgression,

    The sin of other time.

Trembling betwixt hope and fear,

    She sought the King of Heaven,

Forsook the evil of her ways,

    Loved much, and was forgiven.

 

SPRING QUIET

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Gone were but the Winter,

    Come were but the Spring,

I would go to a covert

    Where the birds sing;

Where in the whitethorn

    Singeth the thrush,

And a robin sings

    In the holly-bush.

Full of fresh scents

    Are the budding boughs

Arching high over

    A cool green house;

Full of sweet scents,

    And whispering air

Which sayeth softly:

    ‘We spread no snare;

‘Here dwell in safety,

    Here dwell alone,

With a clear stream

    And a mossy stone.

‘Here the sun shineth

    Most shadily;

Here is heard an echo

    Of the far sea,

    Though far off it be.’

 

SONG

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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 dewdrops wet:

And if thou wilt, remember,

    And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,

    I shall not fear the rain;

I shall not hear the nightingale

    Sing on as if in pain:

And dreaming through the twilight

    That doth not rise nor set,

Haply I may remember,

    And haply may forget.

 

BITTER FOR SWEET

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Summer is gone with all its roses,

    Its sun and perfumes and sweet flowers,

    Its warm air and refreshing showers:

        And even Autumn closes.

Yea, Autumn’s chilly self is going,

    And Winter comes which is yet colder;

    Each day the hoar-frost waxes bolder,

        And the last buds cease blowing.

 

THREE STAGES

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I looked for that which is not, nor can be,

    And hope deferred made my heart sick in truth:

    But years must pass before a hope of youth

        Is resigned utterly.

I watched and waited with a steadfast will:

    And though the object seemed to flee away

    That I so longed for, ever day by day

        I watched and waited still.

Sometimes I said: ‘This thing shall be no more;

    My expectation wearies and shall cease;

    I will resign it now and be at peace’:

        Yet never gave it o’er.

Sometimes I said: ‘It is an empty name

    I long for; to a name why should I give

    The peace of all the days I have to live?’–

        Yet gave it all the same.

Alas thou foolish one! alike unfit

    For healthy joy and salutary pain:

Thou knowest the chase useless, and again

        Turnest to follow it.

My happy happy dream is finished with,

    My dream in which alone I lived so long.

 

ONE CERTAINTY

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Vanity of vanities, the Preacher saith,

    All things are vanity. The eye and ear

    Cannot be filled with what they see and hear.

Like early dew, or like the sudden breath

Of wind, or like the grass that withereth,

    Is man, tossed to and fro by hope and fear:

    So little joy hath he, so little cheer,

Till all things end in the long dust of death.

To-day is still the same as yesterday,

    To-morrow also even as one of them;

        And there is nothing new under the sun:

        Until the ancient race of Time be run,

    The old thorns shall grow out of the old stem,

And morning shall be cold and twilight grey.

 

TWO PURSUITS

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A voice said, ‘Follow, follow’: and I rose

    And followed far into the dreamy night,

    Turning my back upon the pleasant light.

It led me where the bluest water flows,

And would not let me drink: where the corn grows

    I dared not pause, but went uncheered by sight

    Or touch: until at length in evil plight

It left me, wearied out with many woes.

Some time I sat as one bereft of sense:

    But soon another voice from very far

        Called, ‘Follow, follow’: and I rose again.

    Now on my night has dawned a blessed star:

        Kind steady hands my sinking steps sustain,

And will not leave me till I shall go hence.

 

A TESTIMONY

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I said of laughter: it is vain.

    Of mirth I said: what profits it?

    Therefore I found a book, and writ

Therein how ease and also pain,

How health and sickness, every one

Is vanity beneath the sun.

Man walks in a vain shadow; he

    Disquieteth himself in vain.

    The things that were shall be again;

The rivers do not fill the sea,

But turn back to their secret source;

The winds too turn upon their course.

Our treasures moth and rust corrupt,

    Or thieves break through and steal, or they

    Make themselves wings and fly away.

One man made merry as he supped,

Nor guessed how when that night grew dim

His soul would be required of him.

We build our houses on the sand

    Comely withoutside and within;

    But when the winds and rains begin

To beat on them, they cannot stand:

They perish, quickly overthrown,

Loose from the very basement stone.

 

SONG

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Oh roses for the flush of youth,

    And laurel for the perfect prime;

But pluck an ivy branch for me

    Grown old before my time.

Oh violets for the grave of youth,

    And bay for those dead in their prime;

Give me the withered leaves I chose

    Before in the old time.

 

AFTER DEATH

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The curtains were half drawn, the floor was swept

    And strewn with rushes, rosemary and may

    Lay thick upon the bed on which I lay,

Where through the lattice ivy-shadows crept.

He leaned above me, thinking that I slept

    And could not hear him, but I heard him say,

    ‘Poor child, poor child’: and as he turned away

Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept.

He did not touch the shroud, or raise the fold

    That hid my face, or take my hand in his,

        Or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head:

        He did not love me living; but once dead

    He pitied me; and very sweet it is

To know that he is warm though I am cold.

 

LOOKING FORWARD

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Sleep, let me sleep, for I am sick of care;

    Sleep, let me sleep, for my pain wearies me.

Shut out the light; thicken the heavy air

With drowsy incense; let a distant stream

Of music lull me, languid as a dream,

    Soft as the whisper of a summer sea.

Pluck me no rose that groweth on a thorn,

    Nor myrtle white and cold as snow in June,

Fit for a virgin on her marriage morn:

But bring me poppies brimmed with sleepy death,

And ivy choking what it garlandeth,

    And primroses that open to the moon.

Listen, the music swells into a song,

    A simple song I loved in days of yore;

The echoes take it up and up along

The hills, and the wind blows it back again.–

Peace, peace, there is a memory in that strain

    Of happy days that shall return no more.

Oh peace! your music wakeneth old thought,

    But not old hope that made my life so sweet,

Only the longing that must end in nought.

 

REMEMBER

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Remember me when I am gone away,

    Gone far away into the silent land;

    When you can no more hold me by the hand,

Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.

Remember me when no more day by day

    You tell me of our future that you plann’d:

Only remember me; you understand

It will be late to counsel then or pray.

Yet if you should forget me for a while

    And afterwards remember, do not grieve:

    For if the darkness and corruption leave

    A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,

Better by far you should forget and smile

    Than that you should remember and be sad.

 

SEEKING REST

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My mother said: ‘The child is changed

    That used to be so still;

All the long day she sings and sings,

    And seems to think no ill;

She laughs as if some inward joy

    Her heart would overfill.’

My Sisters said: ‘Now prythee tell

    Thy secret unto us:

Let us rejoice with thee; for all

    Is surely prosperous.

Thou art so merry: tell us, Sweet:

    We had not used thee thus.’

My Mother says: ‘What ails the child

    Lately so blythe of cheer?

Art sick or sorry? Nay, it is

    The winter of the year;

Wait till the Springtime comes again,

    And the sweet flowers appear.’

My Sisters say: ‘Come, sit with us,

    That we may weep with thee:

Show us thy grief that we may grieve:

    Yea haply, if we see

Thy sorrow, we may ease it; but

    Shall share it certainly.’

How should I share my pain, who kept

    My pleasure all my own?

 

A PORTRAIT

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She gave up beauty in her tender youth,

    Gave all her hope and joy and pleasant ways;

    She covered up her eyes lest they should gaze

On vanity, and chose the bitter truth.

Harsh towards herself, towards others full of ruth,

    Servant of servants, little known to praise,

    Long prayers and fasts trenched on her nights and days:

She schooled herself to sights and sounds uncouth

That with the poor and stricken she might make

    A home, until the least of all sufficed

Her wants; her own self learned she to forsake,

Counting all earthly gain but hurt and loss.

So with calm will she chose and bore the cross

    And hated all for love of Jesus Christ.

They knelt in silent anguish by her bed,

    And could not weep; but calmly there she lay.

    All pain had left her; and the last sun’s ray

Shone through upon her, warming into red

The shady curtains. In her heart she said:

 

ENDURANCE

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Yes, I too could face death and never shrink.

    But it is harder to bear hated life;

    To strive with hands and knees weary of strife;

To drag the heavy chain whose every link

Galls to the bone; to stand upon the brink

    Of the deep grave, nor drowse tho’ it be rife

    With sleep; to hold with steady hand the knife

Nor strike home:–this is courage, as I think.

Surely to suffer is more than to do.

    To do is quickly done: to suffer is

        Longer and fuller of heart-sicknesses.

    Each day’s experience testifies of this.

Good deeds are many, but good lives are few:

        Thousands taste the full cup; who drains the lees?

 

WITHERING

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Fade, tender lily,

    Fade, O crimson rose,

Fade every flower,

    Sweetest flower that blows.

Go, chilly autumn,

    Come, O winter cold;

Let the green stalks die away

    Into common mould.

Birth follows hard on death,

    Life on withering:

Hasten, we will come the sooner

    Back to pleasant spring.

 

TWILIGHT CALM

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        Oh pleasant eventide!

        Clouds on the western side

Grow grey and greyer, hiding the warm sun:

The bees an birds, their happy labours done,

        Seek their close nests and bide.

        Screened in the leafy wood

        The stock-doves sit and brood:

The very squirrel leaps from bough to bough

But lazily; pauses; and settles now

        Where once he stored his food.

        One by one the flowers close,

        Lily and dewy rose

Shutting their tender petals from the moon:

The grasshoppers are still; but not so soon

        Are still the noisy crows.

        The dormouse squats and eats

        Choice little dainty bits

Beneath the spreading roots of a broad lime;

Nibbling his fill he stops from time to time

        And listens where he sits.

        From far the lowings come

        Of cattle driven home:

From farther still the wind brings fitfully

 

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