18 March 2009

'Three Enemies'—A Pre-Raphaelite Poem for Lent


I’ve been meaning to post something by one of the Pre-Raphaelites at some point, and I settled on the following poem as one most appropriate for Lent. Unlike her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and several of the other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) did not experiment with painting, but chose to hone her craft as a poet alone. This is her poem, ‘Three Enemies’ (Christina Rossetti, The Complete Poems, ed. R.W. Crump [NY: Penguin, 2001], p. 64):

THE FLESH

‘Sweet, thou art pale.’
‘More pale to see,
Christ hung upon the cruel tree
And bore His Father's wrath for me.’

‘Sweet, thou art sad.’
‘Beneath a rod
More heavy, Christ for my sake trod
The winepress of the wrath of God.’

‘Sweet, thou art weary.’
‘Not so Christ:
Whose mighty love of me suffic'd
For Strength, Salvation, Eucharist.’

‘Sweet, thou art footsore.’
‘If I bleed,
His feet have bled; yea in my need
His Heart once bled for mine indeed.’

THE WORLD

‘Sweet, thou art young.’
‘So He was young
Who for my sake in silence hung
Upon the Cross with Passion wrung.’

‘Look, thou art fair.’
‘He was more fair
Than men, Who deign'd for me to wear
A visage marr'd beyond compare.’

‘And thou hast riches.’
‘Daily bread:
All else is His: Who, living, dead,
For me lack'd where to lay His Head.’

‘And life is sweet.’
‘It was not so
To Him, Whose Cup did overflow
With mine unutterable woe.’

THE DEVIL

‘Thou drinkest deep.’
‘When Christ would sup
He drain'd the dregs from out my cup:
So how should I be lifted up?’

‘Thou shalt win Glory.’
‘In the skies,
Lord Jesus, cover up mine eyes
Lest they should look on vanities.’

‘Thou shalt have Knowledge.’
‘Helpless dust!
In Thee, O Lord, I put my trust:
Answer Thou for me, Wise and Just.’

‘And Might.’—
‘Get thee behind me. Lord,
Who hast redeem'd and not abhorr'd
My soul, oh keep it by Thy Word.’

As one can see, ‘Three Enemies’ is a dialogue between an unnamed speaker, another ‘resolved soul’, and ‘the Flesh’, ‘the World’, and ‘the Devil’. It is composed of triplets, the second line of each stanza actually forming a second hemistich of the first line, set apart (it is traditionally indented in addition to starting a new line) so as to visually begin the speaker’s response to the particular ‘enemy’. Each of the speaker’s responses in Rossetti’s poem serve to redirect her attention from the proffered temptations to the love and saving work—particularly, the suffering—of Christ (interestingly, in one of the speaker’s responses to the Flesh a specific reference to the Eucharist is made—see Rossetti, p. 64, ll. 7-8). Thus, the single-minded turning away from the multiform things of the world is an essential characteristic of the Christian’s struggle for Rossetti. Like St Mary the sister of St Lazarus, Rossetti’s speaker τὴν ἀγαθήν μερίδα ἐξελέξατο, that is, ‘the one thing needful’, ἥτις οὐκ ἀφαιρεθήσεται ἀπ᾽ αὐτῆς (Luke 10:42).

3 comments:

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Ah, Christina Georgina Rossetti! One of the greatest of English poets (not merely of "Victorian poets" or of "Women poets"), who is wrongly ignored in most literary circles due to the unfashionable subject matter of the majority of her work. In the nineteen-nineties she started to gain attention as a "female poet", but mostly related to her superficially non-religious work, typically "Goblin Market." There were even laughably ignorant though thoroughly scurrilous suggestions regarding her lack of marriage (she broke off her engagement when her betrothed converted to Catholicism, while she was staunchly Anglican, not for any other reason). It's only among the truly literate (as opposed to adherents of the latest literary trends) that she's appreciated for her absolute mastery of verse throughout her work, which only increased as time went on. The lack of appreciation of her religious poetry is a shiny hook to fish out impostors! Her writing is striking, original, and even at times playful, and her facility with metric verse puts all free verse to shame. Having suffered from serious illnesses, including the cancer which ended her life, her later work is the more striking, the more deeply faithful, and the more deeply moving.

I've posted a number of things, poesy and prose, from her.

For all readers, I recommend The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti, which is the edition put together by her brother William in 1904. His Memoir is especially important. Google Books has it here, and there's a reprint here. I have a beautiful leather-bound and gilt edition from the early twentieth century that was once the property of George A. Zabriskie, a famed New York book collector. A Penguin paperback of the Complete Poems is also available (I'm not certain how many are lacking in the Wm. Rossetti edition), as is a three-volume variorum edition, both edited by R. W. Crump. The paperback includes the memoir of William Rossetti, mentioned above.

aaronandbrighid said...

Wow! Thanks for the appendix, Kevin! I'd like to get that 1904 edition you mentioned.

The brotherly memoir you mentioned reminded me of Henry Austen's biographical notice of Jane, which seems not to have been taken into account by those who discuss and interpret her and her work today.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

You're very welcome, Aaron! She was still very popular and respected at the turn of the era. William Rossetti was the efficient and extremely well-informed executor of the estates of both Dante and Christina, and was known as a great editor and literary critic from the late nineteenth century onward. Actually, his London edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (with all questionable elements removed: prostitutes, etc) was what got Whitman noticed and respected by critics, catapulted him to fame, and kept the Leaves of Grass edition train rolling for years to come. Without William Rossetti's edition, it's likely that Whitman would've died unappreciated and unknown. That reminds me to look for a copy of it....