It is a land with neither night nor day,
Nor heat nor cold, nor any wind, nor rain,
Nor hills nor valleys; but one even plain
Stretches thro’ long unbroken miles away:
While thro’ the sluggish air a twilight grey
Broodeth; no moons or seasons wax and wane,
No ebb and flow are there along the main,
No bud-time no leaf-falling there for aye,
No ripple on the sea, no shifting sand,
No beat of wings to stir the stagnant space,
No pulse of life thro’ all the loveless lands:
And loveless sea: no trace of days before,
No guarded home, no toil-won restingplace
No future hope no fear forevermore.
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
This is a bit of a mystery to me as it doesn’t seem to have been published in Rossetti’s life, but was posthumously published by her brother, William Michael Rossetti, in 1904 as part of The Poetical Works of Christina Rossetti. The contents page suggests that Cobwebs was either written or published in 1855, but this is my only source. You can check it out here if you don’t believe me!
If we take this as the date of composition then it could be possible to relate it to a pretty miserable period of Rossetti’s life. Her dad popped his clogs the year before and was in a lull relationship wise, five years on from Collinson’s religious ditherings causing the break up of their engagement.
The major idea here is the struggle between faith and earthly love through Rossetti’s positioning herself as being in a no man’s land between the two and being a bit miserable about it.
You’ll notice that the same idea is repeated again and again in this poem.
She describes the land she occupies, which is not a freezing and desolate Siberia or a sweltering, arid desert, but a land of nothingness. It is caught between the options – not day or night, not hot or cold, no bad weather and no good weather, no hills and valleys – and as a result is barren and plain. If we view these opposites as representing emotional highs and lows, then she is stuck in a state of emotional numbness.
The poem continues in the same ilk as she now moans about how time seems to stand still and we are stuck in an everlasting season between ripeness and death. While lots of her language should make us think about an empty and unfulfilled life, only once does she tell us directly what is causing this state as she describes the lack of life in the ‘loveless lands’ and for good measure ‘loveless seas’.
The last two lines contain some very vivid imagery or ideas relating to marriage and a stereotypical image of a fulfilled woman’s life with Rossetti lamenting the absence of her own home with a family to make her feel safe and at peace, which runs onto an idea of a perpetual state between the hope and fear of relationships on earth that has been caused by her decision to look to heaven rather than enjoy the fruits – sweet or sour – of earth.
Language and techniques
I didn’t mention it above, but let’s get on to it right away. The title of the poem doesn’t seem to be directly related to the ideas contained within, but it reflects the state of her mind. ‘Cobwebs’ are associated with something that has been stored away and forgotten about, which is how she feels. She is still alive, but effectively she has chosen to shut herself away and gather dust, while alone and miserable. If you’ve ever read Great Expectations, then think of a Miss Havisham figure:
However, Miss Havisham probably wouldn’t claim to be in the same state of emotional numbness as she still seems a bit miffed about her groom standing her up.
Next, make sure you comment on the use of opposites to explore the land Rossetti’s character inhabits. While we might all dream of a land without the extremes of weather and flat everywhere for easy existence, doesn’t it sound just a touch boring. Ask any Dutch person about having a flat country and they’ll moan incessantly until you take some sort of drastic action (my wife may be Dutch, so I know all about this!).
Anyway, Rossetti doesn’t really live in the Netherlands, she is trying to compare her feelings and state of mind using pathetic fallacy and the opposites that are absent from her land represent the extremes of emotion. Take the ‘hills’ and ‘valleys’, these quite neatly represent emotional highs and lows of life. If the hill is a love affair, the valley may be divorce. While we may bask in the ‘heat’ on the beach, she is referring to passion, we also sometimes struggle against the bitter ‘cold… wind… rain’, representing loneliness or misery. The point about the absence of both is that there is nothing there: life is empty and seemingly meaningless and this is because of Rossetti’s self-imposed abstinence and heavenly focus. In reality, her emptiness actually seems to mirror the ‘cold’ and the ‘valleys’ as she is clearly desolate and distraught.
The repetition of ‘nor’ and ‘no’ throughout the poem serves to emphasise this feeling of emptiness. She has nothing in her life worth living for.
The imagery and ideas continue in the same manner and I won’t stop and explore each, but there are a couple of really interesting ones. She talks about time being a constant, but her language also has suggestive links to fertility and motherhood. The moon has long been a symbol of femininity and I’ve explored elsewhere on the site how it has been seen as being a miserable, jilted lady always after the super attractive and smoking hot Sun. When we talk about the ‘wax and wane’ of the moon we are talking about its cycle from full moon through to crescent and whatever else; however, this has also been seen to represent fertility. When the moon is full (‘wax’) it looks a bit like a bulging pregnant body, while when it ‘wane[s]’ the celestial lady has clearly been working out and got herself back into shape. Is Rossetti hinting at a sadness related to being unfulfilled as a woman and mother?
If you think I am straining here, then consider the next imagery used. ‘No bud-time’ connects us with the spring and buds represent new life flowering. Again it is easy to connect this to fertility and a sense of regret at never being able to be fulfilled. I hope you’re also reading a sense of misery within this poem that is betrayed by her claims that her life is empty and thus has neither highs nor lows – lots of lows, which is why she is bloody moaning!
She gives us a very clear indication of her feelings when she says ‘no pulse of life thro’ all the loveless lands’. This tells us not only that she is alone in this land, but also that she considers herself to be dead as her pulse is clearly not there. What she means is that she is in a state of living death as she feels she has nothing to live for and is just waiting for the end. Pretty miserable, but even more so because of the lack of ‘future hope’ as if Rossetti feels there is no hope for her and this loneliness is inevitably going to consume her for the rest of her days 🙁
The fact she also repeats the adjective ‘loveless’ should connect us with quite why she finds this land so miserable. Her renunciation of earthly love and the opportunity for fulfillment as a mother has actually left her feeling miserable and empty and she still seems to be trapped thinking about what she is missing out on. This is also clear in the final two lines that indicate where she seemingly presents a picture of the absence of a family home – ‘no guarded home’ makes me think of a nest with one parent protecting their young, while a ‘toil-worn restingplace’ suggests a home that has been built or bought after husband and wife have struggled hard for it and its comfort.
You could also explore her choice of adjectives to describe the metaphorical land. ‘Sluggish’ and ‘stagnant’ suggest a state of boredom and rotten existence, which implies that Rossetti recognises this in her own life.
We’ve already mentioned the constant repetition – ‘nor’ x7 and ‘no’ x13.
I’d also highlight that this whole poem is one great sentence. Effectively it is a list of things Rossetti doesn’t have, which (as above) emphasises the feeling of emptiness in her life. It also conveys a sense of frustration and hopelessness through the constant use of caesura to make this list long and breathy to read.
Thoroughly miserable and without hope. We never stop in this poem, but we read it slowly and contemplate how much Rossetti is missing out upon. However, no sympathy as this was her bloody choice!