[Instructor’s note: this is the first student blog post of the semester in ENGL 353. For week two of the course, we are reading short poems by Christina Rossetti and five of the sonnets from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sequence, The House of Life].
In exploring the poetry of Christina Rossetti and her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, I read through their selected poems and created a list of items separated by form and content. My hope was to use the patterns I found there to compare the siblings as writers and to see if their poetry shared any commonalities. I was also hoping to use this rubric to find specifically Victorian aspects of their poetry, and whether these aspects were expressed in the form and content of the poetry. Though this quantitative approach to understanding poetry leaves out the subjective bits (there will be more subjective bits later), I think that this is a helpful way to initially approach the authors.
Both of these writers have very distinct styles. Christina’s poems are flowing things, filled with a more casual speech than Dante’s tight sonnets. The ending of her poem “Echo” illustrates Christina’s use of simple language, often through staccato, or single syllables:
Pulse for pulse, breath for breath:
Speak low, lean low,
As long ago, my love, how long ago (16-18)
Despite this simple language, she is grappling with the same complex issues as her brother and many other Victorian writers and poets. Themes of love, death, the senses, dreams, nature, passion, and secrets permeate the works of both siblings. Though in these works, themes like nature feel reminiscent of Romantic literature, there is something darker about the Victorian approach. Both writers maintain a sombre tone, with rare attempts at humour and whimsy. They seem like serious people attempting to wrestle with serious thought. Even Christina’s strange fantasy dream about the gilded crocodile seems serious, and though she denies it, representative or symbolic of the expanding British Empire.
Though they approach very similar subject matter through poetry, their forms are quite different. Christina writes in a kind of free verse that still contains an aspect of rhyme and structure. The website that displays “Winter: My Secret” for this class expresses the rhyme scheme for the second stanza as DEDFEGGEHHEIIIJJ, which begs the question, is this a true scheme at all? Dante could hardly differ more from his sister’s form. His poetry all seems to fall into the pattern of traditional sonnets. I think the form and structure of these poems dictates a lot of the style of each writer. Dante is confined by 14 lines of sonnet with a formal line break, but even within these constraints he manages to use very lofty language to express his ideas. For example, in his poem “The Kiss,” Dante describes a pleasant feeling of passion as:
What smouldering senses in death’s sick delay
Or seizure of malign vicissitude
Can rob this body of honour, or denude
This soul of wedding-raiment worn to-day? (1-4)
It is an interesting idea to imagine that Dante’s use of a constraining form allowed him to express himself more loquaciously, and that Christina’s freedom of form allowed her to express herself more concretely. Personally, I find Dante’s poetry to be beautiful, but dense and obscure, more akin to Shakespearean language than Victorian.
I am more affected by Christina’s poems, more moved. Though she doesn’t follow a consistent rhyming scheme, her natural rhythm is emotional and deeply touching. There is also a melancholy in her works that feels more academic when Dante attempts it. The final lines from her poem “Remember” are quite simple, but are more intimate than much of Dante’s complex language:
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad. (13-14)
Themes of love and death seem to entirely encapsulate Dante’s work. Though Christina’s works don’t seem to be heavily focused on the contemporary Victorian ideas of science and industrialization, she reaches closer to the mark than her brother. The poem “My Dream” stands out from the rest. Though she asserts that she is only relating her dream, it bears more than a passing resemblance to ideas of colonization and empire in North Africa and the Middle East. She writes of a crocodile who was “lord and master of his kin,” who destroyed the other crocodiles around him, but upon sleeping “all the empire faded from his coat” (23, 37). If empire is actually what she is writing about, then we could imagine this character to be an Eastern empire which was “asleep” or unprepared for the arrival of the west, as Christina’s crocodile “rose on his feet / And shed appropriate tears and wrung his hands” (48). Maybe this poem really was just a dream, but it seems to fit the themes of empire too closely for me.
In comparing the style of these siblings, it is easy to see that they share similar themes and that they differ in structure. The question I would pose to the class, is what makes these works Victorian? The form and content of these writers differ greatly from each other, so what ties them firmly into the literature movement of the Victorian era?