Poetry means life, and life means purpose. A beating heart. But Christina Rossetti spent a lot of time contemplating what is dead and gone: death, and loss of the beloved.
“Life is gone, the love too is gone …”
says “The Poor Ghost.” And some of the spirits in Rossetti’s poems are abandoned, left to wander the earth in pursuit of the love they lost when the body died. Others find salvation in the end, in the love of God. God who
“… will still be God, when flames shall roar
“Round earth and heaven dissolving at His nod …”
These religious poems have a moral lesson, which Rossetti repeats again and again: fear not suffering in this life, because you will be rewarded in Paradise. But even where this lesson isn’t told explicitly, it comes through in the spirit of the work.
Rossetti deals with morbid themes: the suffering in romantic love, the shortness of life, human weakness and self-loathing. To dwell on such things can be dangerous. Where there is no life, where only a weak spirit dwells in a human heart, whatever is at hand will rush to fill the gap. Morbid obsessions with love and death weigh heavy on those without the spirit to oppose them. But the poet, with the life in her, is not filled by evil thoughts, but rushes to meet them, and herself possesses them, breathing her own life into them to transform them into objects of beauty.
“She bled and wept, yet did not shrink; her strength
“Was strung up until daybreak of delight:
“She measured measureless sorrow toward its length,
“And breadth and depth, and height …”
So that in reading these poems, your vision is altered, and you no longer see in things the things of earth, but the abstract and measureless qualities and vivid colours of Paradise. You view the world now with the eyes of a dreamer. A poet.
“Once in a dream I saw the flowers
“That bud and bloom in Paradise;
“More fair they are than waking eyes
“Have seen in all this world of ours …”
After reading a great poem, you no longer see with waking eyes. You live once again in the dream, close to God like a child. (Who was it who said that children are divine because they have most recently seen the face of God, and have not yet forgotten?) The great vision of Christina Rossetti produced some of the great poems that seem to bring us close to God.
(I’ve been reading Selected Poems of Christina Rossetti, published by Wordsworth in 1995)