In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
(“In the bleak midwinter,” ll. 1-4)
Christina Rossetti’s poem “In the bleak midwinter” depicts a land cold and frosted, waiting for a savior. But when that savior comes, Rossetti’s narrator is unsure what she has to offer him:
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
(The carol was later set to music that you can listen to the choir of King’s College, Cambridge sing here.)
Rossetti’s biography reveals that she was a very religious woman, but one who struggled at times with that faith, with depression, and with societal convention in the second half of the nineteenth century. Famously, she rejects the love of a suitor in “No, Thank You, John,” arguing that she never promised anything other than friendship to the titular man. In the poem, she relates John’s accusation that she has no heart:
I have no heart?—Perhaps I have not;
But then you’re mad to take offense
That I don’t give you what I have not got:
Use your common sense.
It is interesting that we see Rossetti acknowledge and give away her heart elsewhere, then, in the later carol excerpted above. But Rossetti’s body of poetry reiterates again and again that her trust in earthly men is limited, and she often casts this concern in a fantastical setting.
In her poems, men often show love and care too little and too late, and it is women who must support and defend each other. In “The Prince’s Progress,” she pens a second-person condemnation of a dawdling fairy-tale prince:
Too late for love, too late for joy,
Too late, too late!
You loitered on the road too long,
You trifled at the gate:
The enchanted dove upon her branch
Died without a mate.
The enchanted princess in her tower
Slept, died, behind the grate;
Her heart was starving all this while
You made it wait.
The choice to write in second person emphasizes Rossetti’s criticism of a society that favors a man’s choice and time over a woman’s. Later in the poem, she makes it clear that it is the princess’s subjects who are condemning the prince, and they celebrate the princess, criticizing any too-late mourning from the prince. It is a theme reiterated in the less-fantastical “After Death,” wherein the narrator (presumably a young girl) observes a father-figure mourn her after her death:
He did not love me living; but once dead
He pitied me; and very sweet it is
To know he still is warm though I am cold.
The voice is bitterly sarcastic, mocking the false sentiment of the patriarchal figure.
Rossetti has a harsher criticism of how men control or treat women’s sexuality. Though her poems do, on one level, support a traditional idolization of female chasteness and virginity (see the narrator’s self-condemnation in “A Daughter of Eve,” the title of which calls to mind C. S. Lewis’s appellations in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe), Rossetti still makes a clear statement about male fetishization of and threat to that virginity. She does this most explicitly in her famous poem, “Goblin Market.”
“Goblin Market” relates the adventures of Lizzie and Laura, who in the course of their daily feminine duties (fetching honey, milking cows, cleaning the house, baking bread, churning butter) fend off the advances of a predatory goblin horde who wish to sell them a dazzling array of fruits. The list of wares, tantalizing detailed, opens the poem—but also clearly signals the true concern of the poem, namely women’s sexuality, so often linked with fruits and flowers.
Laura gives in to the goblin’s wiles against Lizzie’s warnings, trading a lock of her hair for the fruit: “She dropp’d a tear more precious rare than pearl, / Then suck’d their fruit globes fair or red.” But much as in any fairy narrative, the goblin food is a trap, and Laura is afflicted with an insatiable appetite for the goblin’s fruit after they disappear, one she cannot find any way to satisfy. It is up to Lizzie to find a way to save her sister. She finds the goblin men and gives them money (not a part of her body) for their wares. In return, they attack her (in fairly graphic terms that can read as sexual assault), forcing their fruit on her. Rossetti still describes her as a “lily” in the midst of this attack, preserving her innocence. When Lizzie finally returns home, she offers the remnants and juice left on her skin as a cure for her sister. The poem has been interpreted in a myriad of ways. But I think an important reading is this: female intimacy (“Hug me, kiss me”… “Eat me, drink me, love me”) is offered as a solution to the predation suffered by both girls.
Though Rossetti ultimately still reinforces the popular condemnation of the sexually active woman in both “Goblin Market” and “A Daughter of Eve,” she also offers what was very often lacking in nineteenth-century discourse (if not also today): a condemnation of the false man—the loitering prince and the animalistic goblin. Consequently, it makes a certain sense that Rossetti is willing to hand over her heart to God, but not to John.
Speculative poetry gave Rossetti a way to express her disappointment with the narrative of love that had so often failed women, reminding us of the power behind both fiction and poetry in this genre. As we approach the New Year, we should embrace this potential to read and write change through speculating a better future, the same hope we embrace in the diversity of holidays we celebrate throughout December.