Wednesday, April 3, 2013

"Nothing Was Ever Beautiful In Vain, Or All In Vain Was Good"

Christina Rossetti never ceases to surprise me.  Given that she wrote so many poems (about a thousand), you never know what you will come across when you open one of her collections.  In this respect, she resembles Thomas Hardy:  you can read their poetry for years, yet still come across undiscovered gems.

Thus, I recently stumbled upon the following poem by Rossetti.  It is one of those poems by her that leaves you wondering:  where did that come from?

Stanley Spencer, "Peonies" (c. 1939)

                  Buds and Babies

A million buds are born that never blow,
     That sweet with promise lift a pretty head
     To blush and wither on a barren bed
          And leave no fruit to show.

Sweet, unfulfilled.  Yet have I understood
     One joy, by their fragility made plain:
     Nothing was ever beautiful in vain,
          Or all in vain was good.

Christina Rossetti,  A Pageant and Other Poems (1881).  Rossetti uses "blow" (line 1) in a sense that has now mostly disappeared, but was commonly used in Romantic and Victorian poetry:  "to burst into flower; to blossom, bloom."  OED.

I suppose that an argument could be made that "Buds and Babies" is a conventional, sentimental Victorian poem.  Perhaps this is true of its subject matter and of its first stanza.  Perhaps.  But the second stanza is another matter entirely:  it is timeless and placeless, both in terms of its art and in terms of its content.

As is always the case with something this good, I hesitate to pick it apart for fear of destroying it.  But consider the setting apart of the lovely "Sweet, unfulfilled" at the beginning of the stanza.  Or consider the sound and rhythm of "by their fragility made plain."

And what are we to make of the closing lines?  Are they a mere truism?  A pious homily?  Perhaps I am simple-minded, but to me they come out of the depths and/or the heights of I know not where.  I am reminded of another line by Rossetti:  "Love hath a name of Death."  Paraphrase would be both futile and impertinent.  I will take the coward's way out and fall back on Wittgenstein:  "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."

Stanley Spencer, "Poppies" (1938)


Chris Matarazzo said...

I wish I had better words for this, but Rossetti's work always has felt to me like something that is about to burst -- as if there is a real force straining against the constraints of her time period; like the waters of something more modern straining against an old-fashioned dam. I probably could not have come up with a more goofy way to explain this if I tried, but, well, there it is.

Stephen Pentz said...

Chris: that is a marvelous way of putting it. I agree with you completely. Your observation is what I was inarticulately and inadequately trying to get at when I stated that the second stanza seems timeless and placeless.

To me, the syntax and movement of the stanza seem contemporary. It sounds like something that, say, Larkin or Edward Thomas could have written.

You are exactly right: this modernness (for lack of a better word) popping out unexpectedly may account for my being taken aback and saying "where did that come from" as I delve into her poetry, That, as well as the striking, almost mystical, cast to her thinking at times.

Thank you very much for stopping by. It's good to hear from you again. You have helped me to recognize and understand feelings that I have had about Rossetti's poetry.

Andrew Rickard said...

Well said, Stephen, and also well left unsaid.

Your comments made me think of another of Christina Rossetti's poems, "Life".

Many thanks. Your blog is a regular delight.

Stephen Pentz said...

Andrew: thank you very much for the reference to "Life," which I hadn't read before. I now have, and it is wonderful. Yes, "Much said, and much more left unsaid" is wonderful!

Thank you very much for visiting again, and for your kind words.

Bob said...

"A million buds are born that never blow" now brings to two my collection of Malthusian poetry. The original member of the collection was the following little gem from Emily Dickinson:

How many Flowers fail in Wood—
Or perish from the Hill—
Without the privilege to know
That they are Beautiful—

How many cast a nameless Pod
Upon the nearest Breeze—
Unconscious of the Scarlet Freight—
It bear to Other Eyes—

One can almost believe that Dickinson and Rossetti were both reading Malthus just as Darwin and Wallace were, and like Darwin and Wallace they independently came up with matching theories as a result.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bob: thank you very much for the poem by Dickinson! She and Rossetti were on the same wave-length, weren't they? Very interesting. Despite all of the stereotypes about the Victorian era being staid and conventional, there was really a great deal going on underneath.

Thank you for visiting again.

Anonymous said...

I have been reading a lot both of & about Emily Dickinson, & some of Christina Rossetti's poetry, in the past year. Next to each other in the Oxford Book of English Verse, both born in 1830. I have sometimes felt a congruence between them, despite the clarity of Rossetti & the strangeness of Dickinson.
I'm delighted that you've returned to the format that allows one to see all the pictures one by one, instead of having to click each up separately.
Susan in NYC

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: thank you very much for visiting again, and for your thoughts on Dickinson and Rossetti. Thank you for pointing out that they were born in the same year: I wasn't aware that they were exact contemporaries.

Unfortunately, I have only a superficial acquaintance with Dickinson's poetry. But, from what I do know of it, I agree that there is, as you say, some congruence between the two. Although this is a vague term, I would say that there is a mystical element in their poetry. You mention Dickinson's "strangeness." I think that Rossetti has an element of strangeness as well, even though, on the surface, her poetry may seem more straightforward than Dickinson's.

Thanks again.

usmelody said...
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