Pre-Raphaelites in The City: Poetry Workshop

Dinah Roe

Poetry Analysis: ‘Christmas Eve’ by Christina Rossetti

It is a well-known fact that Christina Rossetti is very good at writing about Christmas (see ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’). Like her contemporary Charles Dickens, she realises that the power of the season does not come from jolly elves and the purchasing of shiny objects.

For the devout Rossetti, the true appeal of Christmas lies in the acknowledgement of its darkness, both material and spiritual. After all, the birth of Jesus Christ contains the seed of his horrific demise. What Rossetti understands is that the dark heart of Christmas makes Christ’s sacrifice and mankind’s salvation shine even brighter.

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Poetry Analysis: ‘In the bleak midwinter’ [‘A Christmas Carol’] by Christina Rossetti

Publication History
A beloved staple of English carol services, Christina Rossetti’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ [‘In the bleak midwinter’] was originally published in an American magazine, Scribner’s Monthly in January 1872. The poem was commissioned by the magazine’s editor, William James Stillman, husband of Pre-Raphaelite painter, Marie Spartali. The composition date is uncertain, but it must have been written before November 1871, as her brother William Michael Rossetti records this as the date that Christina received a ‘liberal payment’ of £10 ‘for the little poem’.

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‘A Dirge’, by Christina Rossetti Analysis Part 2

Health Warning: In part 2 of this analysis, we’re going to look at meter. No wait! Come back! I know you may have had painful experiences with scansion in the past, but this blog is not here to belittle or punish you for struggling with this sometimes difficult art. 

We’re simply going to look briefly at two different kinds of metrical feet: the dactyl and the trochee. Then we’re going to discover how they help contribute to the poem’s meaning. Easy peasy. There will be no pop quiz afterwards, and I assure you I have nothing up my sleeve except the wish to spread the joy of scansion. If such a thing can be contained in the sleeve of my moth-eaten cardigan.

Let’s begin.

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‘A Dirge’ by Christina Rossetti (Analysis Part 1) JK Rowling goes cuckoo for Rossetti poem

Some might imagine that JK Rowling publishing a crime novel under a pseudonym (Robert Galbraith) is the most important part of the story of the genesis of A Cuckoo’s Calling. But I say Galbraith, Schmalbraith. The real story here is that JK Rowling has borrowed her onomatopoetic, alliterative title from the Christina Rossetti poem, ‘A Dirge’ (1865).

She has also reproduced the complete poem as the novel’s epigraph. Taken together with the neo-gothic overtones of the Harry Potter series and the George Eliot-esque realism of The Casual Vacancy, Ms. Rowling’s acknowledgement of Rossetti bespeaks an acquaintance with nineteenth-century literature that makes this Victorian scholar’s heart beat faster under her sensible cardigan.

Without further ado, I would like to offer a close-reading of ‘A Dirge’ for those interested in following where JK Rowling is gently leading her more curious readers. And I do mean ‘curious’ in multiple senses of the word.

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‘Proserpina’, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti: (Analysis Part 2) Poetry Workshop

Biographical Context
Critics have made much of this sonnet’s biographical context, and indeed, it is worth noting that Rossetti was in love with the picture’s model, Jane, wife of William Morris. It is not a stretch to imagine that Rossetti’s interest in a goddess who is sometimes permitted to escape the clutches of her underworld husband had its roots in the painter’s personal feelings. Rossetti was not the subtlest of artists, or of men, and it is right in character for him to mythologize his affair in this way. However, this picture continues to fascinate because it engages with themes of desire and distance suggestive of something more profound and less particular than a Kelmscott Manor ménage à trois. This analysis will therefore concentrate on the literary and pictorial aspects of this artwork. For more on this picture’s biographical background and production history, see the Rossetti Archive.

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‘Proserpina’, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Analysis Part I) Poetry Workshop: The Poem

When I posted a close analysis of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Winter: My Secret’, I imagined that the next poem I selected would be on the happy subject of springtime. However, it is currently 3 degrees in Oxford and it is snowing. The radio keeps insisting that spring has officially sprung, yet it is so cold in my house that I have to wear fingerless gloves to type.

Twiddling my fingers and humming, ‘Reviewing the Situation’ while imitating Ron Moody as Fagin in Oliver! has provided some small measure of comfort in these dark days, but enough is enough. Who do I speak to about bringing back spring?

In keeping with this lament, let’s look at a poem which grapples with the absence of spring: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Proserpina’ (1881). Inspired by the Roman myth of springtime and by, well, himself, Rossetti wrote this poem to accompany his painting ‘Proserpine’.

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Winter: My Secret (Analysis Part 2) Poetry Workshop

If I had to choose one poem that captures the spirit of Rossetti, it would be this one. A study in contradiction, ‘Winter: My Secret’ is simultaneously withholding and revealing; earnest and teasing; spontaneous and scheming; sincere and ironic, just like the great poet who made it. Here it is again. (The analysis continues after the poem).

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‘Winter: My Secret’ (Analysis Part 1) Poetry Workshop

Winter: My Secret
(by Christina Rossetti) 

I tell my secret? No indeed, not I:
Perhaps some day, who knows?
But not today; it froze, and blows, and snows,
And you’re too curious: fie!
You want to hear it? well:
Only, my secret’s mine, and I won’t tell.

Or, after all, perhaps there’s none:
Suppose there is no secret after all,
But only just my fun.
Today’s a nipping day, a biting day;
In which one wants a shawl,
A veil, a cloak, and other wraps:
I cannot ope to everyone who taps,
And let the draughts come whistling thro’ my hall;
Come bounding and surrounding me,
Come buffeting, astounding me,
Nipping and clipping thro’ my wraps and all.
I wear my mask for warmth: who ever shows
His nose to Russian snows
To be pecked at by every wind that blows?
You would not peck? I thank you for good will,
Believe, but leave the truth untested still.

Spring’s an expansive time: yet I don’t trust
March with its peck of dust,
Nor April with its rainbow-crowned brief showers,
Nor even May, whose flowers
One frost may wither thro’ the sunless hours.

Perhaps some languid summer day,
When drowsy birds sing less and less,
And golden fruit is ripening to excess,
If there’s not too much sun nor too much cloud,
And the warm wind is neither still nor loud,
Perhaps my secret I may say,
Or you may guess.

Poetry Analysis: Getting Started

As Maria Von Trapp might remind us, we should start at the very beginning, because it is a very good place to start. Some people will tell you that a poem begins with its first line. This is not, generally speaking, true. A poem begins with its title. ‘But what about untitled poems?’ I hear the swot at the back objecting. To which I reply, a poet’s decision NOT to include a title is still an omission worth thinking about.

Christina Rossetti and Titles: Not a Love Story
In the case of today’s poem, we should remind ourselves that Christina Rossetti was not always at her most inspired when making up titles. For instance, the actual title of poem we know as ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ is ‘A Christmas Carol’, while ‘My heart is like a singing bird’ is rather forgettably called, ‘A Birthday’. Dante Gabriel Rossetti despaired of his sister’s attraction to generic titles; he tactfully suggested that his sister rechristen ‘The Last Hope’ and ‘Anne of Warwick’ as ‘Death’s Chill Between’ and ‘Heart’s Chill Between’ for the poems’ publication in The Athenaeum in 1848.

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‘Winter: My Secret’ (Poetry Analysis) Poetry Workshop: The Poem

After consulting the statistics for this blog, I am delighted to report that my faith in the reading public’s enthusiasm for poetry has been repaid. The most frequently visited entries are my close interpretations of poems. So a big nanny nanny boo boo followed by a hearty nyuk-nyuk to those who discouraged me from starting a blog on the grounds that no one cares about poetry these days. People do care, and I can use google analytics to prove it. A very big thank you to readers who have written in about (or simply quietly enjoyed) close-reading poetry along with me.

In gratitude, my Christmas offering to you is a seasonally appropriate Christina Rossetti poem called ‘Winter: My Secret’. I hope you will join me in reading, thinking about, and delighting in this poem.

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‘In An Artist’s Studio’: Analysis Part 1 Poetry Workshop

In An Artist’s Studio
(by Christina Rossetti)

One face looks out from all his canvasses,
    One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans;
    We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
    A nameless girl in freshest summer greens,
    A saint, an angel; – every canvass means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
    And she with true kind eyes looks back on him
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
    Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
    Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

When coming to a poem for the first time, it’s tempting just to plunge in and start reading. The trouble with this approach is that you risk overlooking a major part of the poem: its title. Consider Rossetti’s title here: ‘In An Artist’s Studio.’ Without looking at the poem, what can we immediately gather from the title? Let’s close read it word for word and find out.


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In An Artist’s Studio: Poetry Analysis Poetry Workshop: The Poem

When I was a university freshman (long ago, when mastodons bellowed to each other across primeval swamps), a professor of mine once remarked that people are often afraid of poetry because they haven’t really been taught how to read it. This makes sense to me; unlike the Victorians, we are not bombarded with popular periodicals and annuals containing classic and contemporary poems. We are not taught to recite poetry at school, and rarely do we read it in any great depth. But I don’t want people to be scared of poetry anymore. I want people to love it! And if they can’t love it, then at least I want folks to be able to face it down.

So in order to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, I’m going to experiment with a ‘Poetry Workshop’, in which I will closely analyse a Pre-Raphaelite poem.

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Pre-Raphaelites in the City

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This blog explores the thriving Victorian cities which inspired the Pre-Raphaelites, and were shaped by them in turn. While the Pre-Raphaelites produced poetry and art praising the natural world, most were born and raised in urban environments, and their work retained a cosmopolitan sensibility. Although this blog will sometimes take excursions into the countryside, its focus will remain on city life. If you want more information on images or sources, please get in touch.