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Christina Rossetti: Selected Poems
By C.H. Sisson
Carcanet Press LtdCopyright © 2002 C.H. Sisson
All rights reserved.
'Come cheer up, my lads, 'tis to glory we steer'–
As the soldier remarked whose post lay in the rear.
She came in deep repentance,
And knelt down at His feet
Who can change the sorrow into joy,
The bitter into sweet.
She had cast away her jewels
And her rich attire,
And her breast was filled with a holy shame,
And her heart with a holy fire.
Her tears were more precious
Than her precious pearls–
Her tears that fell upon His feet
As she wiped them with her curls.
Her youth and her beauty
Were budding to their prime;
But she wept for the great transgression,
The sin of other time.
Trembling betwixt hope and fear,
She sought the King of Heaven,
Forsook the evil of her ways,
Loved much, and was forgiven.
Gone were but the Winter,
Come were but the Spring,
I would go to a covert
Where the birds sing;
Where in the whitethorn
Singeth the thrush,
And a robin sings
In the holly-bush.
Full of fresh scents
Are the budding boughs
Arching high over
A cool green house;
Full of sweet scents,
And whispering air
Which sayeth softly:
'We spread no snare;
'Here dwell in safety,
Here dwell alone,
With a clear stream
And a mossy stone.
'Here the sun shineth
Here is heard an echo
Of the far sea,
Though far off it be.'
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet:
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not fear the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
BITTER FOR SWEET
Summer is gone with all its roses,
Its sun and perfumes and sweet flowers,
Its warm air and refreshing showers:
And even Autumn closes.
Yea, Autumn's chilly self is going,
And Winter comes which is yet colder;
Each day the hoar-frost waxes bolder,
And the last buds cease blowing.
1.–A Pause of Thought
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.
I watched and waited with a steadfast will:
And though the object seemed to flee away
That I so longed for, ever day by day
I watched and waited still.
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; to 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.
2.–The End of the First Part
My happy happy dream is finished with,
My dream in which alone I lived so long.
My heart slept–woe is me, it wakeneth;
Was weak–I thought it strong.
Oh weary wakening from a life-true dream!
Oh pleasant dream from which I wake in pain!
I rested all my trust on things that seem,
And all my trust is vain.
I must pull down my palace that I built,
Dig up the pleasure-gardens of my soul;
Must change my laughter to sad tears for guilt,
My freedom to control.
Now all the cherished secrets of my heart,
Now all my hidden hopes, are turned to sin.
Part of my life is dead, part sick, and part
Is all on fire within.
The fruitless thought of what I might have been,
Haunting me ever, will not let me rest.
A cold North wind has withered all my green,
My sun is in the West.
But, where my palace stood, with the same stone
I will uprear a shady hermitage:
And there my spirit shall keep house alone,
Accomplishing its age.
There other garden-beds shall lie around,
Full of sweet-briar and incense-bearing thyme:
There will I sit, and listen for the sound
Of the last lingering chime.
I thought to deal the death-stroke at a blow:
To give all, once for all, but never more: –
Then sit to hear the low waves fret the shore,
Or watch the silent snow.
'Oh rest,' I thought, 'in silence and the dark:
Oh rest, if nothing else, from head to feet:
Though I may see no more the poppied wheat,
Or sunny soaring lark.
'These chimes are slow, but surely strike at last:
This sand is slow, but surely droppeth through:
And much there is to suffer, much to do,
Before the time be past.
'So will I labour, but will not rejoice:
Will do and bear, but will not hope again:
Gone dead alike to pulses of quick pain
And pleasure's counterpoise.'
I said so in my heart: and so I thought
My life would lapse, a tedious monotone:
I thought to shut myself and dwell alone
Unseeking and unsought.
But first I tired, and then my care grew slack,
Till my heart dreamed, and maybe wandered too:
I felt the sunshine glow again, and knew
The swallow on its track:
All birds awoke to building in the leaves,
All buds awoke to fullness and sweet scent:
Ah too my heart woke unawares, intent
On fruitful harvest-sheaves.
Full pulse of life, that I had deemed was dead;
Full throb of youth, that I had deemed at rest.
Alas I cannot build myself a nest,
I cannot crown my head
With royal purple blossoms for the feast,
Nor flush with laughter, nor exult in song:–
These joys may drift, as time now drifts along;
And cease, as once they ceased.
I may pursue, and yet may not attain,
Athirst and panting all the days I live:
Or seem to hold, yet nerve myself to give
What once I gave, again.
Vanity of vanities, the Preacher saith,
All things are vanity. The eye and ear
Cannot be filled with what they see and hear.
Like early dew, or like the sudden breath
Of wind, or like the grass that withereth,
Is man, tossed to and fro by hope and fear:
So little joy hath he, so little cheer,
Till all things end in the long dust of death.
To-day is still the same as yesterday,
To-morrow also even as one of them;
And there is nothing new under the sun:
Until the ancient race of Time be run,
The old thorns shall grow out of the old stem,
And morning shall be cold and twilight grey.
A voice said, 'Follow, follow': and I rose
And followed far into the dreamy night,
Turning my back upon the pleasant light.
It led me where the bluest water flows,
And would not let me drink: where the corn grows
I dared not pause, but went uncheered by sight
Or touch: until at length in evil plight
It left me, wearied out with many woes.
Some time I sat as one bereft of sense:
But soon another voice from very far
Called, 'Follow, follow': and I rose again.
Now on my night has dawned a blessed star:
Kind steady hands my sinking steps sustain,
And will not leave me till I shall go hence.
I said of laughter: it is vain.
Of mirth I said: what profits it?
Therefore I found a book, and writ
Therein how ease and also pain,
How health and sickness, every one
Is vanity beneath the sun.
Man walks in a vain shadow; he
Disquieteth himself in vain.
The things that were shall be again;
The rivers do not fill the sea,
But turn back to their secret source;
The winds too turn upon their course.
Our treasures moth and rust corrupt,
Or thieves break through and steal, or they
Make themselves wings and fly away.
One man made merry as he supped,
Nor guessed how when that night grew dim
His soul would be required of him.
We build our houses on the sand
Comely withoutside and within;
But when the winds and rains begin
To beat on them, they cannot stand:
They perish, quickly overthrown,
Loose from the very basement stone.
All things are vanity, I said:
Yea vanity of vanities.
The rich man dies; the poor man dies:
The worm feeds sweetly on the dead.
Whate'er thou lackest, keep this trust:
All in the end shall have but dust:
The one inheritance, which best
And worst alike shall find and share:
The wicked cease from troubling there,
And there the weary be at rest;
There all the wisdom of the wise
Is vanity of vanities.
Man flourishes as a green leaf,
And as a leaf doth pass away;
Or as a shade that cannot stay
And leaves no track, his course is brief:
Yet man doth hope and fear and plan
Till he is dead:–oh foolish man!
Our eyes cannot be satisfied
With seeing, nor our ears be filled
With hearing: yet we plant and build
And buy and make our borders wide;
We gather wealth, we gather care,
But know not who shall be our heir.
How should we hasten to arise
So early, and so late take rest?
Our labour is not good; our best
Hopes fade; our heart is stayed on lies.
Verily, we sow wind; and we
Shall reap the whirlwind, verily.
He who hath little shall not lack;
He who hath plenty shall decay:
Our fathers went; we pass away;
Our children follow on our track:
So generations fail, and so
They are renewed and come and go.
The earth is fattened with our dead;
She swallows more and doth not cease:
Therefore her wine and oil increase
And her sheaves are not numberèd;
Therefore her plants are green, and all
Her pleasant trees lusty and tall.
Therefore the maidens cease to sing,
And the young men are very sad;
Therefore the sowing is not glad,
And mournful is the harvesting.
Of high and low, of great and small,
Vanity is the lot of all.
A King dwelt in Jerusalem;
He was the wisest man on earth;
He had all riches from his birth,
And pleasures till he tired of them;
Then, having tested all things, he
Witnessed that all are vanity.
Oh roses for the flush of youth,
And laurel for the perfect prime;
But pluck an ivy branch for me
Grown old before my time.
Oh violets for the grave of youth,
And bay for those dead in their prime;
Give me the withered leaves I chose
Before in the old time.
The curtains were half drawn, the floor was swept
And strewn with rushes, rosemary and may
Lay thick upon the bed on which I lay,
Where through the lattice ivy-shadows crept.
He leaned above me, thinking that I slept
And could not hear him, but I heard him say,
'Poor child, poor child': and as he turned away
Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept.
He did not touch the shroud, or raise the fold
That hid my face, or take my hand in his,
Or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head:
He did not love me living; but once dead
He pitied me; and very sweet it is
To know that he is warm though I am cold.
Sleep, let me sleep, for I am sick of care;
Sleep, let me sleep, for my pain wearies me.
Shut out the light; thicken the heavy air
With drowsy incense; let a distant stream
Of music lull me, languid as a dream,
Soft as the whisper of a summer sea.
Pluck me no rose that groweth on a thorn,
Nor myrtle white and cold as snow in June,
Fit for a virgin on her marriage morn:
But bring me poppies brimmed with sleepy death,
And ivy choking what it garlandeth,
And primroses that open to the moon.
Listen, the music swells into a song,
A simple song I loved in days of yore;
The echoes take it up and up along
The hills, and the wind blows it back again.–
Peace, peace, there is a memory in that strain
Of happy days that shall return no more.
Oh peace! your music wakeneth old thought,
But not old hope that made my life so sweet,
Only the longing that must end in nought.
Have patience with me, friends, a little while:
For soon, where you shall dance and sing and smile,
My quickened dust may blossom at your feet.
Sweet thought that I may yet live and grow green,
That leaves may yet spring from the withered root,
And buds and flowers and berries half unseen.
Then, if you haply muse upon the past,
Say this: Poor child, she has her wish at last;
Barren through life, but in death bearing fruit.
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann'd:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
My mother said: 'The child is changed
That used to be so still;
All the long day she sings and sings,
And seems to think no ill;
She laughs as if some inward joy
Her heart would overfill.'
My Sisters said: 'Now prythee tell
Thy secret unto us:
Let us rejoice with thee; for all
Is surely prosperous.
Thou art so merry: tell us, Sweet:
We had not used thee thus.'
My Mother says: 'What ails the child
Lately so blythe of cheer?
Art sick or sorry? Nay, it is
The winter of the year;
Wait till the Springtime comes again,
And the sweet flowers appear.'
My Sisters say: 'Come, sit with us,
That we may weep with thee:
Show us thy grief that we may grieve:
Yea haply, if we see
Thy sorrow, we may ease it; but
Shall share it certainly.'
How should I share my pain, who kept
My pleasure all my own?
My Spring will never come again;
My pretty flowers have blown
For the last time; I can but sit
And think and weep alone.
She gave up beauty in her tender youth,
Gave all her hope and joy and pleasant ways;
She covered up her eyes lest they should gaze
On vanity, and chose the bitter truth.
Harsh towards herself, towards others full of ruth,
Servant of servants, little known to praise,
Long prayers and fasts trenched on her nights and days:
She schooled herself to sights and sounds uncouth
That with the poor and stricken she might make
A home, until the least of all sufficed
Her wants; her own self learned she to forsake,
Counting all earthly gain but hurt and loss.
So with calm will she chose and bore the cross
And hated all for love of Jesus Christ.
They knelt in silent anguish by her bed,
And could not weep; but calmly there she lay.
All pain had left her; and the last sun's ray
Shone through upon her, warming into red
The shady curtains. In her heart she said:
'Heaven opens; I leave these and go away;
The Bridegroom calls,–shall the Bride seek to stay?'
Then low upon her breast she bowed her head.
O lily flower, O gem of priceless worth,
O dove with patient voice and patient eyes,
O fruitful vine amid the land of dearth,
O maid replete with loving purities,
Thou bowedst down thy head with friends on earth
To raise it with the saints in Paradise.
Excerpted from Christina Rossetti: Selected Poems by C.H. Sisson. Copyright © 2002 C.H. Sisson. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Bitter For Sweet,
Two Thoughts of Death,
Is And Was,
The Three Enemies,
The Summer Is Ended,
From The Antique,
For Rosaline's Album,
Next Of Kin,
From The Antique,
The First Spring Day,
The Last Look,
Old And New Year Ditties,
A Chilly Night,
In The Lane,
A Bed Of Forget-Me-Nots,
Love From The North,
A Better Resurrection,
The Heart Knoweth Its Own Bitterness,
In The Round Tower At Jhansi,
An Apple Gathering,
Winter: My Secret,
To-day and To-morrow,
Yet A Little While,
L. E. L,
What Good Shall My Life Do Me?,
from The Prince's Progress,
'No, Thank You, John',
The Lambs Of Grasmere (1860),
Wife To Husband,
Promises Like Pie-Crust,
The Lowest Place,
The Queen Of Hearts,
A Dumb Friend,
Life And Death,
Somewhere Or Other,
Weary In Well-Doing,
What Would I Give!,
Grown And Flown,
Shall I Forget?,
Italia, Io Ti Saluto,
A Daughter Of Eve,
'To-day For Me',
A Christmas Carol,
Yet A Little While,
'I Wish I Could Remember',
'Youth Gone, And Beauty Gone',
He And She,
A Life's Parallels,
One Sea-side Grave,
'Roses On A Brier',
'Heaven's Chimes Are Slow',
'A Cold Wind Stirs,
'Lord What Have I To Offer?,
'The Fields Are White',
'Margaret Has A Milking Pail',
Maude: A Story For Girls,
About the Author,