Good Friday

Overview
Don’t get excited, this is nothing to do with chocolate eggs and half term; this poem examines Rossetti’s struggle to feel a close connection to Christ (our shepherd), guilt for her sins and ends with a hope that she can be saved and brought back into Christ’s flock.
Good Friday

Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
     That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?

Not so those women loved
     Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;

Not so the Sun and Moon
     Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon–
I, only I.

Yet give not o’er,
     But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.

ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Published in 1866 as a devotional piece in The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems, this is clearly a poem exploring our connection for faith. If you want to view this as being biographical then maybe you can relate this date with her third and final refused proposal (1866 Charles Cayley) and thus maybe lingering doubts about her commitment to religious devotion are evident in the poem.

 Themes

Two stand out for me: firstly, rather obviously, her faith and determination to be a good servant to the big guy; secondly, a lack of self-worth, which could come from a state of misery and self-loathing, but more realistically I see as being an artistic device to show deference to God.

Content

Pretty simple poem, once you’ve got the main symbols.

She starts with rhetorical question about her nature, about whether she is a stone or a sheep as she cannot weep when considering Christ’s crucifixion. You might think neither of these options are particularly wonderful, but Christ is often referred to as our shepherd and someone who guides us towards a good and moral life – so really we want to be sheep. A stone, however, is cold and emotionless and that is clearly how Rossetti or her poetic voice feels.

Contrasting herself with others who have felt grief thinking about poor old Jesus up on his cross, she shows the power and legitimacy of female emotion, biblical misery from Christ-denier/first disciple, Peter, and even the celestial powers of the Sun and Moon wallowing in misery. At the end of the third stanza she singles herself out, feeling she is the only one who is unable to connect with Christ and forge this deep, respectful relationship for him due to his sacrifice.

In the final stanza, Rossetti has hope. She may be a stone, but she connects us with the story of Moses cracking a rock in order to provide a water source for the Israelites striking out from Egypt in search of the promised lands. She doesn’t want Christ to give up on her, but instead show her the way and open her heart so that she can become a true part of his flock of spiritual sheep.

Language and techniques

You must start by explaining and examining the significance of the biblical symbolism. She wants to be ‘a sheep’ because Christ is the ‘true Shepherd of the flock’ and will guide us to salvation.

However, currently she feels unable to connect or open her heart enough for Christ and thus compares herself to a cold and emotionless ‘stone’. In the book of Exodus (I haven’t read it, but am assured that…) Moses is leading the Israelites away from their Egyptian captivity and towards the promised land. This is taking a bit of a while and all these people are getting a bit thirsty and miserable, so Moses has a chat with God who tells him to smash a rock open and he’ll find water. Thus when she tells Christ he is ‘great than Moses’ Rossetti is directly linking us to this story and comparing the Israelite’s thirst with her spiritual thirst, thus she wants Christ to ‘smite a rock’ in order to allow her to achieve the spiritual connection she currently doesn’t feel she has.

The fact you uses a rhetorical question in this opening analysis of herself, indicates a sense of frustration at herself and her inability to forget this connection.

We’ve also got a load going on in terms of elevating Christ and demonstrating how bloody wonderful he is. First of all, we have the detailed exploration of his suffering through the ‘blood’s slow loss’ and ‘drop by drop’ that emphasise how long he was held up on the cross. I feel there is a sense of guilt connected with this, as he sacrifices himself for our sins and thus the intensity of this pain should ensure our devotion.

The elevation continues with the description of all the different biblical characters who ‘weep’, were ‘weeping bitterly’ or ‘with exceeding grief lamented’ his crucifixion. These words are extremely emotive and ‘weep’ always make me think of uncontrollable emotion, sadness engulfing and consuming someone. Notice that it is women’s grief that is mentioned first, at a time when in Victorian society women’s emotions were often repressed and hidden away, but here there is a sense of legitimacy in female emotion as it is presented as coming before all else. We also have ‘fallen Peter’ who is the disciple who denied he knew Jesus before the crucifixion, but then went on to be the first pope. The ‘thief’ was a criminal being crucified alongside Christ who was moved by his words and knowledge at the end.

However, the nicest elevation comes in the form of the imagery of the Sun and Moon. View these as either representing the heavens (celestial beings) or just as permanent and unmoving natural elements that have been moved to emotion. The imagery personifies each by saying they ‘hid their faces’ and were joined by ‘a starless sky’ – a total eclipse as if they are too sad to perform their duties. The intensity of their emotion is implied through Rossetti’s description of this eclipse as a ‘horror of great darkness’, which suggests that the whole world has been plunged into misery and confusion with the Sun and the Moon joining them.

Rossetti ends the third stanza by emphasising the inadequacy of her feelings by isolating them from everyone else. ‘I, only I [cannot weep]’ really focuses us on the feeling that she feels like she is alone in being unable to feel this sense of connection with Christ.

However, the poem ends with a hopeful tone. When she says ‘give not o’ver’ she sounds like a gruff Yorkshire man, but she means that Christ should not give up on her and indeed he never does. If we relate this back to the symbol of Christ as a shepherd then we understand that saving souls is his livelihood and he must ‘seek [His] sheep’ and ‘turn and look once more’, implying that he cannot give up on her soul and that she wants him to find her and allow her to reach this desired state of spiritual fulfillment.

She possibly doesn’t actually feel this, but is just being deferential and claiming ‘I don’t love or worship you enough, as you’re so amazing!’, while she is actually pretty committed and devoted.

Structure

Not much to talk about her. I would mention the cumulative effect of listing all the people mourning Christ’s passing as emphasising Rossetti’s feeling like she is unworthy.

Nope, can’t think of anything else meaningful to say here.

Tone

This poem comes across as desperate and miserable. It mirrors the desperation of the Israelites and Moses’ plea for assistance and thus connects Rossetti’s state of mind with theirs: thirsty and unable to go on without support and guidance from above.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

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