19th century / Arts

Where Loss Resides

The Relationship Between Space and Loneliness in the Poetry of Christina Rossetti
By Mona Sakr and Ali Nihat

Christina Rosetti

Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) is perhaps best known for her religious poetry. And yet, her work is often an exploration of the ultimate loneliness of human existence, mourning the absence of all others, including God, in the innermost parts of the mind. She explores concepts of loss and loneliness through many techniques, and we are particularly interested in her use of space to investigate these issues. By space, we refer to the landscapes in which the poems are set, but also the complementary notion of the space occupied by the poem on the page. We can better grasp the relationship between space and loneliness in Rossetti’s work by comparing three of her shorter poems: A Chilly Night, A Daughter of Eve and Amen.

In A Chilly Night, the haunting image of ghosts upon the ‘plain and mound’ is seen from the window. The ghosts comprise an unsettling combination of the familiar (the only ‘named’ ghost being that of the mother) and the foreign. There is a sharp division between the poet and this vision, physically manifest in the latticework of the window. The ghosts occupy the wild space of the outside, and in doing so, become incomprehensible. Although the ghost of her mother talks to her, desperate for dialogue, the poet cannot hear anything. The ghosts represent an impossible escape from loneliness through their presence in this landscape.

In contrast, Amen allows Rossetti to explore the possibility of sharing space with others.Amen constructs communality through ‘harvest days’, the sharing of land in order to produce. Worked spaces, fields and farms, are communal but maintained. The poem repeatedly takes on a question and answer format:
‘It is over. What is over?’
‘It is finished. What is finished?’
‘It suffices. What suffices?’
This format reflects the relationship between individuals working the same land, as well as the reciprocal relationship between people and the land. As with a catechism in church, it is comforting and incontestable.

Christina Rossetti

But the poet is clearly uncomfortable with this notion. The interrogative contradicts the statement that it is over, or finished, or that it suffices. There is something fey in the repetitiveness, and the last stanza is a welcome break from these questions. Instead of back and forth, the emphatic anaphora of ‘And’ on the three closing lines, and the withholding of the verb, suggests a staggered progression towards a single point in an inward-looking existence:
‘And my garden teem with spices’
Although this reads as an image of hope, thus unique in comparison to A Chilly Night and A Daughter of Eve, it is a collapse into the garden-plot, an internal and unshared configuration of space.

The internal nature of the garden is explored further in A Daughter of Eve, where the garden comes into existence through the reclusiveness of sleep. The poem begins with a reference to sleep, suggesting that the images then used are the construct of dreaming:
‘A fool I was to sleep at noon’
There is methodical outwards movement, from the personal action of sleep, to the miniature existence of flowers, ‘my rose’ and ‘my lily’, the possessive maintaining an element of interiorization, and finally to wider concepts of nature such as ‘future Spring’. But there is a dismissal of space on this grand scale, and also of time. It is the moment right now that is of concern:
‘Talk what you please of future Spring’.
In Amen also, tense is used to blur the boundaries of the particular and universal. For example, Rosetti comments that the sun ‘shall’ shine, but also that this fact ‘suffices’, thereby constraining a proposition about the future to a closed-off point in the present.

In all three poems, there is an attempt to break away from the space and time that we share with others. Space collapses in on itself, as it is essentially a construction or counterpart of the other, and otherness cannot be tolerated in the poems of Rossetti. Since we exist in one particular point in space and time, we cannot register landscapes or time as anything but that which is outside ourselves. Thus, a loneliness is created through the breakdown of the cycles of time and space:
‘I sit alone with sorrow’ (A Daughter of Eve)
‘And I was indeed alone’ (A Chilly Night)
On the other hand, continuity is offered through the heavy use of rhyme. While the rhyming patterns have an essentially comforting effect, the tension between the cyclical nature of rhyme and the internal collapse of content increases our distress.

It is impossible to know whether Rossetti intended these points of tension, or would have preferred to be simply a religious and rhyming poet. Either way, the tension, possibly that between conscious faith and unconscious doubt, exists and is illuminated through the relationship between space and loneliness.