Sunday, August 3, 2008

A Hope Deferred

After her death, Christina Rossetti's brother wrote an introduction for a collected volume of her works. In it he made a statement that has been often quoted, and that I think is entirely wrong. He said that her poetry is often morbid. This, together with his assessment that she was Roman Catholic at heart, has led me to think that while he knew his sister, he had little understanding of her faith.

He is quite right that her poems deal extensively with the subject of death, and they continue in this vein for around five decades. Not that death is her only, or even her main topic, but it does pop up more often in her works than in most writers of her time period.

But consider her life and faith. As a child she became very ill and was periodically confined to bed for months at a time. From this illness neither she nor her doctors expected her to recover. Religious before her illness, it was during her illness that the future hope of life in Christ became absolutely focal in her mind. While her body largely recovered (although she remained weak and somewhat sickly for the next fifty years) she herself was unwilling to give up the comfort that she had found in keeping the future life always before her. To a large extent she felt that recovery had robbed her of the goal that she had almost reached; it had shut the door (temporarily) on her foot that had been eagerly stepping into eternity.

Was she imperfectly satisfied with life here and now? Yes, absolutely. But it was not a morbid desire for death, a desire to "end it all" as people dramatically say. It was much more a longing for what she saw as the true beginning of life. And for her the door to that real life, life with Jesus in a world of no more illness or pain, the door to that was death here. So, yes, she longed fervently for her own death. That sounds morbid, but when understood in the context of her life, her faith and her poetry I think it is actually very far removed from morbidity.

She lived constantly in the hope of finally gaining what for now was to her a hope deferred.

Now I confess that I have some problems with a life so utterly focussed on the future that the present loses its own peculiar glory. And this does indeed appear to have been the case with Rossetti, at least intermittently.

However, I think most of us do much worse than to have the radiance of heaven outshining our desires here and now.

And her future focus did not hold her back from working here and now, for she devoted herself to helping prostitutes regain their lives. She wrote prolifically in more different styles than any other writer of her time, including even a commentary on the book of Revelation (is that the first by a woman?). And despite being rather bashful she was very social and was at the center of a very large body of friends. So her life was not simply a waiting to die. She eagerly anticipated the inauguration to life that lay through her own death. Meanwhile, she lived.


Treasure plies a feather,
Pleasure spreadeth wings,
Taking flight together,-
Ah! my cherished things.

Fly away, poor pleasure,
That art so brief a thing:
Fly away, poor treasure,
That hast so swift a wing.

Pleasure, to be pleasure,
Must come without a wing:
Treasure, to be treasure,
Must be a stable thing.

Treasure without feather,
Pleasure without wings,
Elsewhere dwell together
And are heavenly things.


Who would wish back the saints upon our rough
Wearisome road?
Wish back a breathless soul
Just at the goal?
My soul, praise God
For all dear souls which have enough.

I would not fetch one back to hope with me
A hope deferred,
To taste a cup that slips
From thirsting lips:-
Hath he not heard
And seen what was to hear and see?

How could I stand to answer the rebuke
If one should say:
"O friend of little faith,
Good was my death,
And good my day
Of rest, and good the sleep I took"?


Why should I call Thee Lord, Who art my God?
Why should I call Thee Friend, Who art my Love?
Or King, Who art my very Spouse above?
Or call Thy Sceptre on my heart Thy rod?
Lo, now Thy banner over me is love,
All heaven flies open to me at Thy nod:
For Thou hast lit Thy flame in me a clod,
Made me a nest for dwelling of Thy Dove.
What wilt Thou call me in our home above,
Who now hast called me friend? how will it be
When Thou for good wine settest forth the best?
Now Thou dost bid me come and sup with Thee,
Now Thou dost make me lean upon Thy breast:
How will it be with me in time of love?

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