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This week, my Victorian literature class is finishing a unit on 19th century faith and doubt, and we’re concluding with the poet Christina Rossetti. As I was choosing from amongst her hundreds of poems on Christian themes and topics, I was reminded again of her many lovely poems centered on Lent and Easter. “Reminded again” because I had a vague memory that I had shared other Rossetti poems in this space. And sure enough, last April I featured “A Better Resurrection” (which I still commend to you).
Though Rossetti’s critical reputation has always been high, many critics have struggled with her unwavering Christian commitment and her huge output of religious verse, particularly in the later part of her career. Her poems of romantic transgression and renunciation have usually found a more appreciative audience in the wider academy, perhaps because a non-religious audience finds them easier to relate to than her intense, often unrelentingly self-critical religious examinations. But this latter group is full of ones I love, no doubt because I know only too well the ways I myself fall short every day in living out the faith, hope, and love of Christ’s calling.
Rossetti’s speakers in the two poems I highlight today are fierce not only in their self-diagnosis of their failings, but in their self-awareness, even self-consciousness, of these failings. In classic Romans 7 fashion, these speakers–who definitely know better and certainly want to do better–nevertheless, cannot. Still, as the poems conclude, Rossetti reminds us that no stone can resist the power of the resurrection, even the stones of our own hearts. The lost are sought and burdens are lifted, even when the burdens are our very selves. Thanks be to God.
Am I a stone and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?
Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;
Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in the starless sky,
A horror of great darhness at broad noon —
I, only I.
Yet give not o’er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more,
And smite a rock.
“Who Shall Deliver Me”
God strengthen me to bear myself;
That heaviest weight of all to bear,
Inalienable weight of care.
All others are outside myself;
I lock my door and bar them out
The turmoil, tedium, gad-about.
I lock my door upon myself,
And bar them out; but who shall wall
Self from myself, most loathed of all?
If I could once lay down myself,
And start self-purged upon the race
That all must run ! Death runs apace.
If I could set aside myself,
And start with lightened heart upon
The road by all men overgone!
God harden me against myself,
This coward with pathetic voice
Who craves for ease and rest and joys
Myself, arch-traitor to myself ;
My hollowest friend, my deadliest foe,
My clog whatever road I go.
Yet One there is can curb myself,
Can roll the strangling load from me
Break off the yoke and set me free.
Interesting. In the second poem, the formal structure (especially the re-iteration of “myself” at the end of the first line of every stanza) seems to reflect the tension in the poem between self-obsession and self-forgetfulness. “Good Friday” offers an interesting mixed metaphor for the self (sheep/rock), with the tension coming to a head in the final stanza where Christ is implored to both seek the sheep and smite the rock.
In the first stanza of “Good Friday” should the last two lines be “To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,/ And yet not weep?” That would fit the metrical and rhyme scheme better.
David, you’re exactly right. Somehow in putting it online, the line break got in the wrong spot. I’ve fixed it. And yes, I love the combination of the hardness of the heart broken open, but still paired with the love of the seeking shepherd. In the second, the formal stuff is really cool. Lots more to be said there. Thanks for saying something!