The writer of one of my favorite love poems, A Birthday, was Christina Rossetti ~ a Victorian spinster. What was it about Victorian spinsters that inclined them toward poetry, and a passionate inner life? Truly, they were singing birds! They sang their hearts out despite the cages in which they were often confined by the repressive, male-dominated mores of their day.
First came Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose poetry was celebrated in the 1830’s. She lived until she was 40 as a reclusive semi-invalid, a virtual prisoner in her father’s house in Wimpole Street, London. Then, she met and fell in love with Robert Browning.
Browning was a dashing poet and adventurer, six years younger than she. But he adored Elizabeth’s poetry, and persuaded the frail, frightened poet that he loved her too. Her beautiful collection of poems, Sonnets from the Portuguese, chronicle her love affair with Robert, from her initial doubts and fears to her final triumphant declaration, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…”
A year after they met, the lovers secretly married and eloped. They fled Elizabeth’s prison, never to return. Her enraged father disinherited her, but she refused to re-enter the gilded cage.
At 43, the former invalid bore her first and only son, Robert Weidman Browning. She died in her husband’s arms at 55, leaving behind a collection of exquisite love poems, and an inspiring story of love triumphant in an age when respectable women seldom got to sing the music that was in them.
Christina took up Elizabeth’s mantle as England’s favorite poetess after her predecessor died in 1846. But unlike Elizabeth, the love affairs she began were never consummated in “Real Life.” Instead, she expressed her deepest desires and yearnings through her poetry.
She fell in love and was engaged twice, once to an artist, James Collinson, and once to linguist Charles Colley. Her devout Anglican faith caused her to break off both engagements, however. She abandoned James because he reverted to Catholicism, and Charles, because she decided he was not a Christian.
Rejecting the path of sexual fulfillment, marriage and motherhood, she stayed home with her mother, writing poetry and enjoying an intimate circle of artistic friends, including her brother, the famous Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Her main contact with the world beyond her safe, closed social circle was volunteer work with prostitutes at the St. Mary Magdalene Penitentiary in Highgate. (The Victorians, a lusty crew, were obsessed with rehabilitating “fallen women!”) She died in 1894, leaving no husband or children, but a flock of singing poems that expressed her passionate heart.
Who would have guessed that this reclusive, deeply religious woman led an inner life of such burning intensity? Her poem, A Birthday, is a lyrical love song that moved me to create my new Valentine card, Singing Bird. The pictures Christina paints in words are so vivid that my image almost painted itself.
A BIRTHDAY By Christina Rossetti
My heart is like a singing bird Whose nest is in a water’d shoot; My heart is like an apple-tree Whose boughs are bent with thick-set fruit; My heart is like a rainbow shell That paddles in a halcyon sea; My heart is gladder than all these, Because my love is come to me.
Raise me a daïs of silk and down; Hang it with vair and purple dyes; Carve it in doves and pomegranates, And peacocks with a hundred eyes; Work it in gold and silver grapes, In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys; Because the birthday of my life Is come, my love is come to me.
Even more startling are the words in some of her children’s poems. The Goblin Market, written as a fairy tale in 1859, is filled with stunning erotic imagery. In the following lines, Lizzie, the good sister in this morality tale, urges her dying sister, Laura, to lick the juice and pulp from the wicked goblin’s magic fruit off her body. The goblins have smeared her with the crushed fruit in their violent efforts to force her to swallow it, allowing them to steal her soul, as they once stole Laura’s. Lizzie resists their attack, and brings the juices back to her sister so that she may drink of them and be made whole again.
She cried “Laura,” up the garden, “Did you miss me? Come and kiss me. Never mind my bruises, Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices Squeezed from goblin fruits for you, Goblin pulp and goblin dew. Eat me, drink me, love me; Laura, make much of me: For your sake I have braved the glen And had to do with goblin merchant men.”
To the modern reader, these lines are amazingly sensuous. They would play well in Cosmopolitan magazine or Penthouse, were the subject not fruit, and the rescue of an errant young woman by her noble sister. Christina herself would probably have been amazed to think of the lines as erotic.
Laura does as her sister asks, and is soon beautiful and blooming again. The poem ends with the two sisters reunited in love, and with Christina, turning her back on the succulent temptations of forbidden fruit to claim, virtuously, that: … there is no friend like a sister In calm or stormy weather To cheer one on the tedious way, To fetch one if one goes astray, To lift one if one totters down, To strengthen whilst one stands.’
The sisters are shown, in an illustration by Christina’s brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, all cuddled up in bed together ~ a situation that has led some modern feminists and critics to claim that the poem is not only a song to repressed sexuality, but to homo-erotic fantasies of lesbianism!
For me, the answer is simpler. Though Christina refused to admit love into her life, either through religious scruples, or through feeling that she was not up to the claims love would make upon her ~ she could not totally repress her deepest longings and human instincts.
As C. M. Bowra writes in an article published on the Victorian Web, “She fought against them and kept them in iron control, but, left alone with her genius, she could not from time to time prevent them from bursting into almost heart-rending poetry, which is all the more powerful because it rises from not controlled thoughts but from longings which force themselves on her despite all her efforts to check them.”
How lovely that, despite all inhibitions and self-imposed discipline, the passionate heart of Christina burst forth in poetry that expresses for everyone who has ever loved, or hoped to love, the authentic voice of passion and joy.