The poem “My Dream” by Christina Rossetti emphasizes her use of dream or otherworldly metaphor and imagery along with allusions to the passage of time. As in other examples of her writings she reflects Victorian concerns over progress and regress. Despite her reluctance to speak publically about her political views in plain terms, her writing conveys a message that she otherwise wouldn’t. Some of her more fanciful poems can be looked at past their entertainment value as messages and commentaries on the state of the world they’re written in. Rossetti prods at the underlying social anxieties which were prevalent in England at the time of her writing.
In the poem “My Dream,” Rossetti offers a criticism of the power and character of the British Empire. The rising of the crocodiles out of the river inspires an almost biblical image of the providence of countries. She is subtle in her symbolism yet does not shy away from vivid language to convey the greed of her beastly crocodile king. Her allegory of a crocodile with “The luscious fat distilled upon his chin…while still like hungry death he fed his maw,” (29-30) is an altogether unflattering, if not unpatriotic, portrayal of her country’s Empire. Rossetti alludes to the urgent attitude held in regard to British expansionism. In sleep the great crocodile “dwindles to a common size” (35). In this way an empire which sleeps, which at any point stops consuming and expanding, loses its imposing power and becomes vulnerable. It is constant growth which keeps an empire “lord and master of his kin” (23). The expanse of the industrial revolution and the considerable reshaping of colonial possessions during the early Victorian era lead to not only a height of power but concerns about how to maintain that power. A crocodile of common size could be overtaken by any other crocodile. Regress or stagnation of the empire gives other powers opportunity to catch up and surpass.
The significant choice of the crocodile as a symbol for the empire is best shown in the last stanza when an unseen force acts on the rivers. This mysterious force may represent changes to the international trade and markets, a shift in politics or economy or the threat of military conflict. Perhaps given the emphasis on the unknown nature of “what it bore of freight or host” we might infer that this represents an influx of immigration into Britain. Xenophobia bleeds through into this and other literature as a threat to established social standings. Whatever the specific ill force, the idiom of crying of crocodile tears shows that Rossetti intends little sympathy to her harmed empire. English readers would have likely found it hard to fathom this view, given general faith in the British empire. Patriotism compels citizens to defend their country and empire in times of trouble, but Rossetti suggests there is danger in falling for the apparent distress after the threat has past. While she has an apparently strong and chastising political view, Rossetti dawns the subtler guise of allegory rather than voicing she views in satire. The last couplet of the first stanza lends some insight into the reasons for her subtlety. She is likely to indeed be worried about how her criticism will be received by the public.
After reading the poem in full it’s worth looking back to the title and considering multiple meanings of the word “Dream.” This word can be equated with illusion, delirium or hope. While at the start she presents it as a brief and bewildering fancy, the critical tone she develops towards the end allows us to think of her dream as a hope or desire. The belief Rossetti expresses that her “closest friend would deem it untrue” (12) juxtaposes her initial insistence that “each word is weighted and sifted truth” (2). These lines, and the closing stanza of “What can it mean? you ask. I answer not” (49) inform the reader that there is a message beyond the written words and that said message is not easily accepted. Rossetti understands that the popular values of Victorian patriotism might contrast with her position. The message she intends in her poetry is hard for her audience to swallow. Yet in the closing line she professes the truthfulness of her observations that they are told “as I saw it on the spot” (51).The most important part of her dream may be the premonition, or prediction, of a force which would rock the crocodile’s kingdom. While her tone in other poems is not as critical as in “My Dream” she consistently uses her writing to express the belief that the passage of time, and the changes it brings, must not be looked upon as tragic. Rossetti suggests that whichever path the future takes, be it further progress or fearsome regress, it must be seen as inevitable. Choosing to deny truth of the unpleasant and undesirable does not prevent it.