Friday, October 23, 2015

Poem: L. E. L. by Christina Rossetti

I've been thinking about Christina Rossetti lately, and it recently struck me that there's one thing I  really love about her.

Rossetti often strikes a chord with me. I got her Complete Poems for my birthday last year, and since then, as I’ve dipped in from time to time, I’ve discovered a few new favourites. Some of her poetry appeals to the lover of dramatic storytelling, some of it to the meditative recluse. And some of it appeals right to something that, at this time of my life, I sometimes identify with a bit.

It truly doesn’t define my life (certainly not when I'm busy and the sun is shining and there's work to do!). Other things define my life—my writing, my reading, my faith, my family, my ministry of availability to struggling friends. And I think Christina Rossetti felt the same way. But that didn’t stop this minor theme from surfacing from time to time in her verse; and those of her poems that deal with this are often the ones I find myself remembering and quoting the most.

Christina Rossetti never married. On one occasion, she broke off an engagement when her intended converted to Roman Catholicism. Later, she rejected another suitor who didn’t share her passionate faith and moral seriousness. She spent her life writing, caring for her aging and beloved mother, and volunteering in various mercy ministries.

So at this particular stage of my life, I can sometimes really identify with Christina Rossetti. Her poetry of deferred and wistful hopes is something I've come to appreciate more and more as time goes by. She writes about the sorrow never entirely absent from the joy in watching friends and acquaintances pair off: “All love; are loved, save only I.” She writes about heartbreak and lost love: “With all sweet things it passed away, And left me old, and cold, and grey.” She writes about the difficult decision to put her faith and her God above the man she loved: “None know the choice I made and broke my heart, Breaking my idol.” She writes quietly, gently, of her hopes: “I wonder if the springtide of this year Will bring another Spring both lost and dear” and of her fears: “I still am sore in doubt concerning Spring.”

I think these are things that a lot of young women feel from time to time. Sometimes, being unmarried seems, well, less than desirable! For me, it’s at those times that Christina Rossetti has walked alongside me, feeling what I’ve felt, sorrowing over what I’ve sorrowed over.

But most importantly, guiding me into the right responses. In Christina Rossetti’s footsteps, I’ve been encouraged to leave self-pity behind, to fix my eyes on eternal things: “True best is last, true life is born of death.” I’ve been encouraged to look foward to relationships which will never run aground: “think how it will be in Paradise When we’re together.” And I’ve been reminded that no matter what earthly love I may or may not experience, a glorious heavenly Love is mine, so that with Christina I can truly say, “The birthday of my life is come, my love is come to me.”

These poems have been a blessing to me in the past, and I think they will be a blessing to you, too. Here's one of them.


“Whose heart was breaking for a little love.”

Down-stairs I laugh, I sport and jest with all:
        But in my solitary room above
I turn my face in silence to the wall;
        My heart is breaking for a little love.
                Though winter frosts are done,
                 And birds pair every one,
And leaves peep out, for springtide is begun.

I feel no spring, while spring is wellnigh blown,
         I find no nest, while nests are in the grove:
Woe's me for mine own heart that dwells alone,
        My heart that breaketh for a little love.
         While golden in the sun
        Rivulets rise and run,
While lilies bud, for springtide is begun.

All love, are loved, save only I; their hearts
         Beat warm with love and joy, beat full thereof:
They cannot guess, who play the pleasant parts,
         My heart is breaking for a little love.
                 While beehives wake and whirr,
                 And rabbit thins his fur,
In living spring that sets the world astir.

I deck myself with silks and jewelry,
         I plume myself like any mated dove:
They praise my rustling show, and never see
         My heart is breaking for a little love.
                 While sprouts green lavender
                 With rosemary and myrrh,
For in quick spring the sap is all astir.

Perhaps some saints in glory guess the truth,
         Perhaps some angels read it as they move,
And cry one to another full of ruth,
         “Her heart is breaking for a little love.”
                 Though other things have birth,
                 And leap and sing for mirth,
When spring-time wakes and clothes and feeds the earth.

Yet saith a saint: “Take patience for thy scathe”;
         Yet saith an angel: “Wait, for thou shalt prove
True best is last, true life is born of death,
         O thou, heart-broken for a little love!
                 Then love shall fill thy girth,
                 And love make fat thy dearth,
When new spring builds new heaven and clean new earth.”


Joseph Jalsevac said...

This is a deeply beautiful poem, and so accessible. It seems to be a glimpse into a pure and very feminine heart. I have been watching more TV recently, and I guess it has been having its effect because I almost forgot that such goodness and purity could exist in the world. It was a bit of a shock reading this. She seems to be a combination of Charlotte Bronte and St. Therese of Lisieux. This is the kind of poetry I would love to write. I like this template - to contemplate a profound experience in the context of nature, with beautiful words, culminating in spiritual wisdom. I will put her on my mental reading list.

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

This is beautiful. Thank you for sharing—the poem and the post. It's something I can very much identify with too.

Suzannah said...

Joseph, if you have never read Christina Rossetti's poetry before, you have a wonderful treat in store. I have posted some of my other favourites on the blog from time to time--you can see them under R on the Review Index.

Elisabeth, I'm so glad you liked it. It's good to walk difficult paths hand in hand with someone who's been there before you.

Sarah said...

Beautiful, Suzannah. Thank you! "...guiding me into the right responses." So true. What better thing could we do in our writing (or anything!) than leave someone at the feet of Jesus, walking with them there, as John the Baptist did, bringing the bride to Christ?
"To all the poets I have known, who turned their tears into a string of pearls, who held their sorrow high to light the world, when I thought I was alone." -Andrew Peterson "To All the Poets"

Joy said...

This is a beautiful post, Suzannah! Thank you for sharing about Christina Rossetti - I'd heard of her a lot, and read a few of her poems/hymns from A. W. Tozer's "Book of Christian Verse" and just loved her verses, and caught her name in my poetry-collection, but I'd really love to read more of her poetry now. I can definitely sympathise with this poem and your reflections as well.

Much love, dear friend!

Suzannah said...

Sarah, it's the kind of thing CS Lewis talked about under the name of "Stock Responses" in THE ABOLITION OF MAN, isn't it? Wonderful stuff :)

Joy, Christina Rossetti was really a delight--you might enjoy reading "Goblin Market" as preparation for "The Bells of Paradise", since that was part of the inspiration!

D. Loon said...

Yay Rossetti! I hereby resolve to start reading more of her poetry to my daughter.

Suzannah said...

I hope she enjoys it :D


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