Course Blog

Christina Rossetti’s Sexuality

In Christina Rossetti’s poem The World, there is a strong contrast to her other poems in the way that she discusses women. Rossetti is known as a particularly feminist poet for the time, with poems like No, Thank You, John and In an Artist’s Studio showing her assertiveness and distaste for the expectations of women put by men. In The World, Rossetti describes a woman as an evil, two-faced entity, similar to tropes seen in other Victorian literature (Lady Audley in Lady Audley’s Secret, the woman in La Belle Dame, etc). She describes the woman as “A very monster void of love and prayer” (Rossetti, The World). This could be because her intention was not to describe women at all, but instead her own internal conflict with her sexuality. Rossetti had a complicated relationship with sexuality, being a feminist but also a devout Anglo-Catholic. She stayed unmarried and childfree her entire life, and expressed a disliking for men who were interested in her. In her poem, No, Thank You, John for example, Rosetti states “Here’s friendship for you if you like; but love,— No, thank you, John” (Rossetti, No, Thank You, John). This has the implication that perhaps she was not interested in men at all, and was not just uninterested in the men in her poems.

In her poem, The World, Rossetti makes multiple references to religion, and specifically, hell. At the end of the poem she states, “With pushing horns and clawed and clutching hands. Is this a friend indeed; that I should sell My soul to her, give her my life and youth, Till my feet, cloven too, take hold on hell?” (Rossetti, The World). This consistent mentioning of hell while asking if she should maintain her connection with the woman could be representative of her internal conflict on whether to listen to her heart or to her faith. She could be feeling as though building a relationship with a woman would destroy her connection to her faith. In other Victorian literature, men would often describe women as temptresses, leading good men astray. In The World it can be argued that Christina Rossetti is feeling the same as a man being called by a siren: as if she is losing control of her sexuality.

No Means No

Christina Rossetti’s poem, No Thank You, John, is a recurring theme of how men can’t take no for an answer. Rossetti spends eight stanzas trying to reject a man named John, and he will not take no for an answer. The poem’s speaker is a woman who is assumed to be Rossetti. Thank You No John is a very blunt poem. Aside from the title, Rossetti’s forward language can be found throughout the poem. With her, “I never said I loved you John” appears twice, and “I’d rather answer no to 50 Johns Than answer yes to you.” I found that quote to be fascinating because it is so ridiculous. The fact that the woman in this poem used such intense language to get rid of this man and still had to repeat herself is baffling. In this way, I felt I could relate the poem to modern times because of the theme of men not taking no for an answer. There is a distinct parallel between the need to be friendly and polite and not hurt men’s feelings and not being taken seriously in rejection. Despite this, Rossetti makes sure to use hard language: “Who can’t perform that task” I noted that she said can’t, not won’t. It comes off as something she cannot do rather than something she just doesn’t want. He has the nerve to call her heartless in response to her rejection. In response to being called heartless, she stands her ground and concedes that perhaps she doesn’t have one and uses that against him, that he is crazy to take offense to her when she has no heat. I loved this poem so much because it feels badass and feminine and still relevant today.     

Loving Unrequited Love

“A Pause of Thought” written by Christina Rossetti perfectly encapsulates what it’s like to have a crush on someone. The poem is written in an ABBA pattern and it seems to mirror the theme of push and pull or the reality vs. daydream scenarios we often play in our minds regarding our special someone.

The first stanza begins with,

“I looked for that which is not, nor can be,
And hope deferred made my heart sick in truth
But years must pass before a hope of youth
Is resigned utterly.”

It begins with Rossetti acknowledging the person whom she is admiring is unattainable or unrealistic from her position. It is not like today where we can easily DM or yet alone email those we fancy. There were probably only a few occasions where Rossetti was able to meet a male counterpart, at least those she found at least mildly attractive. Even then, there was no guarantee that she would see him again (it’s not like she could look him up). And if she did have the chance to mail him letters, it would take too much time and effort and she would never know if he had other women or if he would vanish into the sea!

Rossetti knows it’s not logical, but she still longs for it.

“I watched and waited with a steadfast will:
And though the object seemed to flee away
That I so longed for, every day by day
I watched and waited still.”

As a girl who has once had big crushes, I get this. There is something so forbidden and addicting about fanaticizing what we could have been.

Rosseti goes on to go back and forth with her thoughts in the next three stanzas.
“Sometimes I said: This thing shall be no more;
My expectation wearies and shall cease;
I will resign it now and be at peace:
Yet never gave it o’er.

Sometimes I said: It is an empty name
I long for; a name why should I give
The peace of all the days I have to live?–
Yet gave it all the same.
Alas, thou foolish one! alike unfit
For healthy joy and salutary pain:
Thou knowest the chase useless, and again
Turnest to follow it.”

She knows that she lives a life of peace without the thought of the nameless man she secretly admires, but the fact that this person could be her potential lover drives her crazy.

When your expectations aren’t broken, there is more room to daydream and more time to spend thinking about wasted potential. What if? How come? One day? It is a struggle to let go of the thoughts that give hope and comfort. Christina Rossetti acknowledges how love is not simple. As humans, we desire to be loved, but we also fear rejection and unfulfilled expectations. We know when to be logical but still go against our own good judgments. Humans are not sound when it comes to love. Obviously, Rossetti knows better. But frankly, it doesn’t matter who she’s convinced herself of loving, because what she really loves is the thrill/chase of unrequited love.

The Duality of It All

(No, shockingly this isn’t about Jekyll and Hyde)

Christina Rossetti’s The World encapsulates the push and pull of ones mentality from good to evil and restraint to desire. We feel this specific duality expressed through Rossetti’s choice of words and structure of the poem. It begins with “By day she woos me” the phrase ‘by day’ repeats three times and is met with a contradicting ‘but’ twice.  

“By day she woos me, soft, exceeding fair:
   But all night as the moon so changeth she;” 

“By day she wooes me to the outer air,
   Ripe fruits, sweet flowers, and full satiety:
   But through the night, a beast she grins at me,” 

This allows us to recognize a clear temporal difference between the subjects state of being in the night versus the day, while also implying that this change of persona happens multiple times. The “ripe fruits” and “sweet flowers” sound appealing on their own but when met with language like “A very monster void of love and prayer” it’s clear that these kinder adjectives are used to mask an ugly truth that hides behind life’s temptations.  

“By day she stands a lie: by night she stands
   In all the naked horror of the truth” 

The sweetness is the lie, and the truth is something dark within us all whether it is a wanting or craving for more out of life or a desire for something perhaps…taboo. Yet no matter how appealing this beast is, it is not something to be met with or yearned for. Which is clear in these two lines: 

“Loathsome and foul with hideous leprosy
And subtle serpents gliding in her hair.” 

The serpents in the hair call upon the imagery of Medusa who will turn onlookers into stone when stared in the eye. This mysterious monsterous woman described in Rossetti’s poem seems to be unattainable, desired, rejected and feared all at once, truly capturing divisions of the mind and possible fears of ourselves.  

Scandalous gentleman : Mr. Hyde and his first murder.

 Within the first read of  ‘The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde’ has brought up some reoccurring themes of  brutality  and especially duality. Within the first paragraph when the maid witness the crime, repetition is used to emphasize the brutal nature of the crime. Words and phrases such as “ferocity,” “startling,” “stamp,” “trampling,” and “blows”(Stevenson,1886) are repeated, intensifying the violence and makes a shocking and vivid image to the maids and the readers. This violence is greatly contrasted by how the old gentleman acted in the previous sentence, highlighting the improper and violence attitude Mr. Hyde has “it seemed to breathe such an innocent and old-world kindness of disposition, yet with something high too, as of a well-founded self-content” (Stevenson,1886).

There are other motifs  that also highlights the contrast and duality within a person’s character. The moonlight and the fog are contrasting motifs that contribute to the atmosphere and foreshadow the duality of characters. The moon, representing innocence and purity, illuminates the scene and initially casts a gentle light on the old gentleman, physically making him good-natured. In contrast, the fog symbolizes hidden agendas and obscurity, hinting at the second nature of Mr. Hyde’s true self. The contrast characters of the old gentleman and Mr. Hyde makes up the whole passage . The former embodies innocence, old-world kindness, and good-hearted while the latter is characterized by impatience, anger, and an animalistic nature. Making all of these foreshadowing and contrasting could be seen as the author trying to create a sense of suspense, deepening the impact of the crime, and highlight the contrasting personalities of the characters involved.

From my perspective, I think this passage can be seen as an exploration of the duality of human nature and the consequences of suppressing one’s darker impulses. The scandalous nature of Mr. Hyde’s actions is heightened by his high social status, which adds a layer of shock to the narrative. Mr. Hyde represents the embodiment of Jekyll’s repressed animalistic behavior and immoral tendencies, which are considered taboo by society while the old gentleman is what society considers as proper. This duality becomes scandalous because it challenges the conventional beliefs of respectability and the expectation that individuals of high social standing should embody only proper qualities. It also conveys the pressure of the 19th century view on class and how the maid’s witness can damage Mr. Hyde reputation as an elite.

She’s a Liar

“The World”, a sonnet by Christina Rossetti, features, what seems to be, a clear statement about how a person is “wooed” by a female character. This sonnet features the comparison between a woman during the day and during the night, but as the poem reads on the speaker seems to slowly accuse the woman of showing erotic desire. This can be seen in lines five and seven of the sonnet, where the speaker states, “By day she wooes me to the outer air…but through the night, a beast she grins at me…”(Rossetti 45). Going from line five to line seven, there is a drastic shift in the diction that the speaker chooses to use. This shift draws attention to the comparison between the woman at day and at night. More importantly it draws greater attention to the way that the woman presents herself in the public eye compared to the way she is when the two are alone. It is suggested that in the outer air the woman simply shows a playful love, however at night the speaker sees the “beast” that resides within her. Normally the thought of a beast would spark the image of a ugly, unwanted being, however, in this scenario the speaker is not describing a being but desire. Further into the poem – lines nine and ten – the speaker seems to make an even stronger accusation of irrational erotic desire by stating, “By day she stands a lie: by night she stands in all naked horror of the truth…”(Rossetti 45). Likewise with the other lines, the speaker starts off by talking about the female character in the day as now being a liar. By utilizing “lie” as a descriptor of the woman the speaker leads a reader to view their temptress as a monster in a pretty dress, but at night this dress metaphorically slips off. Furthermore, the speaker goes on to describe the women as revealing the “naked horror of the truth”, which once again is the comparison to the person the woman is by day. By the time that these lines are utilized, what is seemingly a comparison turns into the same thing as the woman is actually a monster by day and night. What is being said here by the speaker describes the way that women in this time period could be viewed by society. 

Rossetti’s sonnet at face value describes the stigma that surrounds the sexual desires of a woman and how her partner views these desires. This translates to the time period that this novel was written (1862) as it quite possibly could be how Rossetti herself viewed the world around her. It is no shock that this time period caused women all over to jump through hoops and tip toe by taboo topics that would cause the public to frown upon her. This sonnet not only describes the judgmental gaze of a sexual partner but describes the struggle to differentiate between normal sexual desire and sin. This sonnet exists simply because of how women were made to feel watched in their sexual lives. Evidently, society at this time oftentimes tried to pry the door open to expose the normal desires that lurked in the depths of the minds of women. Despite the fact that this poem is a reflection of Rossetti’s time period, it can also be applied to society now. Many people would like to agree that nowadays we do not give an unwelcoming glance to those who we deem to lack steady morals with their sexual choices, however, still today women feel this everlasting gaze peering over their shoulders. What I am really trying to get at here is the comparison between women at day and night is simply a way to describe the struggle of women in society when sexual desire is the topic. Rossetti captures this message through the voice of a speaker who gradually makes this comparison until eventually it ends up not being a comparison at all and instead a statement. 

Sources Cited:

Christina Georgina Rossetti. Goblin Market and Other Poems (1865). 1865. Whitefish, Mont., Kessinger Publishing, 2009, p. 45.

Goblin Market is selling more than just fruit

The first read of ‘Goblin Market’ by Christina Rossetti brought up many themes of women’s sexuality and sexual pressures from men. Sex in this case is represented by the fruit being handed to two sisters by goblins. In the beginning of the poem these fruits are described as “full and fine” and “sweet to tongue and sound to eye” but even with very positive descriptions the sisters reject the fruit because “their evil gifts will harm [them]”. This forbiddingness’ of an object that is being described as such a luxury makes it of higher value and is more of a mystery. The tone also switches within the poem from these angelic words to more aggressive adjectives like “crowing” and “snarling”. This switch in language is indicative of the change in mood of the goblins as well. In the beginning they were asking the girls if they wanted fruit but as the poem progressed the choice of taking the fruit was abandoned and the fruit was forced upon them. This can be seen as peer pressures and a rape if you view the poem with the point of view of fruit being sex.

A poem with themes of male manipulation and vulnerable women makes sense being published during the Victorian era because of the role of women during this period. Women have little rights and were often seen only to please men. Writing a poem from the side of the women without being direct could be seen as a sign of activism toward women’s rights at the time.

In a broader sense I believe this poem is a great description of power and addiction overall and doesn’t fall only under the category of being about sexual acts. The fruits can be viewed as anything society views as taboo. An example of this would be drugs. In this context it is something that with peer pressure people give into even if they know it is bad for them in the long run. Humans do things even though we shouldn’t and this will continue on forever.

Friendzone in the 19th century

Christina Rossetti’s poem “No, Thank You, John” indeed stands as a remarkable piece that can be seen as ahead of its time, particularly in its nuanced exploration of romantic rejection and the concept of the “friendzone.” Although written in the Victorian era, the poem transcends its time by addressing the complexities of relationships and the importance of clear communication.

The poem’s rejection is beautifully put, as Rossetti delicately navigates the delicate balance between asserting her independence and expressing gratitude for the friendship offered by John. The lines “Let us strike hands as hearty friends; /No more, no less: and friendship’s good: /Only don’t keep in view ulterior ends, /And points not understood” epitomize this sentiment. In these lines, Rossetti articulates the desire for a genuine and uncomplicated friendship without the burden of unspoken expectations or hidden motives. This foresight is particularly striking when considering the contemporary discourse around the “friendzone,” a term that gained prominence in the 21st century to describe a situation where one person desires a romantic relationship while the other only seeks friendship. Rossetti’s emphasis on friendship as a valuable and self-contained relationship, “and friendship’s good,” challenges the societal norms of her time, where romantic entanglements were often prioritized over platonic connections. Her insistence on not keeping “in view ulterior ends” aligns with the modern understanding that relationships should be built on mutual respect and transparency.

In this way, “No, Thank You, John” anticipates the evolving discussions around relationships, consent, and the importance of clear communication. Rossetti’s rejection is not just a dismissal but a call for mutual understanding and a rejection of societal expectations that may force individuals into roles they are not comfortable with. The poem’s enduring relevance lies in its timeless portrayal of the complexities of human connections, making it a work that transcends its Victorian origins and resonates with contemporary discussions on relationships and boundaries.

The lady of Shalott: a Greek tragedy

The Lady of Shalott, a poetic creation by Alfred Lord Tennyson, bears intriguing resemblances to various Greek tragedy characters, thereby weaving a tapestry of shared themes and poignant narratives.

The thematic resonance between the Lady of Shalott and Penelope from Homer’s Odyssey is unmistakable, particularly in their shared activity of weaving. The act of weaving serves as a metaphor for their lives, representing a form of passive engagement with the world while encapsulating the isolation and yearning each woman experiences. In Tennyson’s poem, the Lady is described as weaving a magic web in her tower, isolated from the external world. Her weaving is not a mere pastime but a fundamental aspect of her existence, dictated by the curse that binds her. Similarly, Penelope, during Odysseus’s prolonged absence, weaves and unweaves a shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes. This act is both a symbol of her fidelity and a means of delaying remarriage, reflecting her own form of isolation. Lines from “The Lady of Shalott” emphasize the repetitiveness of the Lady’s weaving, underscoring the monotony of her existence: “No time hath she to sport and play: /A charmed web she weaves alway. /A curse is on her, if she stay/ Her weaving, either night or day, /To look down to Camelot.” The act of weaving becomes a ritualistic, almost mechanical, endeavor that defines her secluded life. Similarly, in the Odyssey, Penelope’s weaving is a constant, laborious activity. Homer describes her weaving and unweaving the shroud, symbolizing the passage of time and the hope that Odysseus will return. The repetitive nature of this act reflects Penelope’s own sense of isolation and longing: “She set up a great tambour frame in her room, and began to work on an enormous piece of fine needlework.” In both cases, weaving becomes a symbolic expression of longing and isolation. The Lady and Penelope are tethered to their respective spaces, engaged in repetitive tasks that serve as both a distraction and a form of connection to the world outside. The act of weaving, in these instances, transcends mere craftsmanship; it becomes a poignant expression of the characters’ internal struggles and unfulfilled desires.

Furthermore, the Lady’s fate resonates with the myth of Echo and Narcissus. In the myth, Echo is cursed to only repeat the words of others, echoing the voices around her. Similarly, the Lady is under a curse that forces her to weave ceaselessly without directly experiencing the external world. Both characters are trapped in a form of isolation, yearning for a connection that seems elusive. The Lady of Shalott’s narrative also echoes the tragic fate of characters like Oedipus or Antigone from Greek tragedies. Oedipus, unwittingly fulfilling a prophecy that leads to his downfall, and Antigone, defying societal norms for the sake of her convictions, share a tragic inevitability with the Lady. The Lady’s fate is preordained by the curse, and her attempt to break free from it ultimately results in tragedy. Moreover, the theme of forbidden observation in the Lady’s story reflects the tragic consequences of transgressing divine laws in Greek mythology.

In weaving these threads, it becomes evident that the Lady of Shalott encapsulates the essence of Greek tragedy: a convergence of fate, isolation, and the poignant yearning for a connection that seems forever out of reach. Through these parallels, Tennyson weaves a narrative that transcends time and culture, resonating with the universal human experience encapsulated in both Victorian and ancient Greek literature.

No Friend Like A Sister

On page 16 of Goblin Market Christina Rossestti’s final words are “For there is no friend like a sister/In calm or stormy weather;/To cheer one on the tedious way,/To fetch one if one goes astray,/To lift one if one totters down,/To strengthen whilst one stands.” This line immediately stood out to me, as the oldest of three sisters whose very used to seeing inspirational quotes about sisters. Then upon rereading it, I realized it is a nice general sentiment about sister relationships, but it’s also a short recap of the poem thus far. This seems to be Rossestti’s way of saying only sisters can protect each other the way Laura and Lizzie do.

The first rhyme of this half of the stanza follows a questionable rhyme scheme. The first two words “sister” and “weather” can rhyme or not, depending on the pronunciation of the words. But assuming they do, the rhyme scheme is AABBCD.  I’m unsure if “down” and “stands” are supposed to rhyme, but they don’t, which ends the pattern. There no internal rhymes or other significant literary devices. But the word “one” is repeated in the same way a writer could say “when you.”

The main reason I fell in love with Goblin Market is because it gave me the same feeling I got when I watched Frozen for the first time as a kid; I love classic feeling fairytales about sisterly love. As much as some the underlying themes  of the poem are questionable, reading a lot like a commentary about the dangers of women being worldly, the positive message of sisterhood is largely what makes the story beautiful. I do think Rossestti’s choice to end her poem with this line is her way of  saying this was her message, like how in a lot of fables written for very young kids will end with the moral written out for them.

Rossestti also uses these last few lines as a way of recapping the story in a way that doesn’t feel tired. The line about calm or stormy weather refers to the sisters being there for each other before, after, and during the events of the poem. Obviously the line about being led astray refers to Laura being swept up in the market. And the last two lines about helping your sister come back from chaos refers to the previous stanzas of the sisters being reunited.

There have been plenty of children’s stories and fairytales with a final moral that’s simply “sisters are a gift.” That’s a fine moral for stories for children who can’t think much deeper than that. But Rossestti’s story is deeper than that. I think her choice to connect her recap of the story, with an emphasis on the importance of sisterhood, is her way of saying the true moral of this poem is that only a sister can save you from situations like the one Laura and Lizzie end up in.  “There is no friend like sister” and only that kind of friend can safe you from the Goblin Market.