Get in! This website loves Christina Rossetti and her artistic or religious sacrifice to be thoroughly miserable pretty much all of the time. So much so, that if I ever have a daughter she will be named Rossetti (presuming I can convince my wife!).
This sonnet comes from a sonnet of sonnets called Monna Innominata that I’ve analysed previously on the site. In this sonnet Rossetti exposes the depth of her forlorn desire to be with the man she loves, but she squashes her feelings in devotion to God.
slumber – a deep and restful sleep;
wan – pale and sickly complexion.
I dream of you, to wake: would that I might
Dream of you and not wake but slumber on;
Nor find with dreams the dear companion gone,
As, Summer ended, Summer birds take flight.
In happy dreams I hold you full in night.
I blush again who waking look so wan;
Brighter than sunniest day that ever shone,
In happy dreams your smile makes day of night.
Thus only in a dream we are at one,
Thus only in a dream we give and take
The faith that maketh rich who take or give;
If thus to sleep is sweeter than to wake,
To die were surely sweeter than to live,
Though there be nothing new beneath the sun.
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)
Although Rossetti is without a doubt my favourite poet, I have an overwhelming sympathy for her. Her life wasn’t one to envy as she struggled with finances, family illness, her love life and being torn between faith and feelings.
I’ve written loads about her life and influences in the section of the site dedicated to the Rossetti A2 selection. However, for this poem you probably only need to know that she was serially unlucky/ridiculous in love. This poem was written in 1881, when she was 51 and past it in many respects, and seems to refer to her unfulfilled feelings for Charles Bagot Cayley. He proposed to her in 1866, but she rejected him as he held different religious beliefs. However, they stayed close friends to the end of their days. In the poem we see a struggle between the desire to be with a man she loves fighting a desire to be a devout Christian. This internal conflict makes her relish death and dreams as a release from her suffering.
Interestingly, Rossetti saw Monna Innominata (the longer poem) as a breakout from a poet tradition that only ever considered women in relation to the value men placed in their beauty. The title means Unnamed woman in Latin and refers to the silent voice of women in literature. She meant to expose the real and raw emotions within women. Although she is not the first to have done this, poetry was still very much a male dominated sphere and so her perspective would have been something extremely rarely shared.
While this appears in the War, Death and Sleep sections, I think it is fairer to classify this poem as being about faith and love, but they are tied together through twinned ideas of the lands of dreams and death.
Real life is conspicuous through its absence in this poem, which shows that Rossetti’s focus was elsewhere – on the love she never followed and the embrace of death and expected salvation.
Rossetti has a pleasant dream of the chap she loves, but is miffed when she wakes up and finds herself back in her rotten state of existence. She wants to continue sleeping, but only if her dreams are going to feature this man.
However, in the fourth line she concedes that at this stage in her life (with summer behind her) it is no longer possible for this dream to become a reality. Her youthful fancy that this was possible has buggered off with the birds.
She presents us with an image of herself as being fulfilled and happy in her dreams, but waking up to appear sick and miserable. The traditional association of day and light as the time we relish and live in is spun on its head for Rossetti who only lives in the night, through these dreams.
Having made her point about how she feels, she sets out an argument that if she can only be happy in these small snatches of dreams, then surely the eternal sleep of death would be preferable to life.
Language and techniques
Consider first of all the intensity of the word ‘dream’. Although she frames it as a dream that has just popped into her head at night, she is really representing her deepest desire. Our dreams are the things that drive us and make us move forward.
I’d also comment on the use of the second person pronoun ‘you’, which makes this poem deeply personal and specific and yet if we read the rest of Monna Innominata these are feelings she cannot easily share with this man as she self-represses. However, this is what she wants to tell him and the truth of what is going on in our hearts.
The depth of her desire indicates that this is not a base type of lust, but rather a deep emotional connection between two people. She refers to the subject as her ‘dear companion’, which has connotations of respect, trust and friendship rather than anything sexual.
After the reality of the opening line, Rossetti wishes for a deep and restful ‘slumber’ in which her dreams will be unending. ‘Slumber’ is a beautiful word that suggests a sleep that is deep, long and restful. The idea of this contrasts with the sharpness of the awakening from the dream within the opening line.
In the fourth line, we have an interesting metaphor. She represents her dreams as ‘Summer birds’ and wishes to find a sleep where she does not have to face the prospect of ‘Summer ended’. This reference to the seasons connects with the stage of our lives and our mortality. Summer is the peak of the year, the brightest and happiest time of our lives, but it will always come to an end. When it does ‘Summer birds take flight’ and are not seen again until the next spring. Rossetti could here be simply suggesting that she wants her dreams to go on forever or that she feels her summer is over already, but I think there is a broader implication.
I see this as Rossetti’s life mantra and being her argument for religious conversion of her partner. If we see our lives as represented by the four seasons, then although we may enjoy the fertility of spring and fulfillment of summer, it will eventually decline and end. However, a dream where summer never ends could represent the prospect of eternal paradise together in heaven and thus be a subtle instruction of what she feels he should do to ensure their dream does come true.
Moving on to the second quatrain, we have a beautiful, contrary image of Rossetti full of life, with colour and ‘blush again’ in her cheeks while she sleeps, but when she returns to reality she is ‘wan’ as if she were sickly or near death. The pitch black of the night is made ‘brighter than sunniest day that ever shone’ by her dreams. Her dreams don’t only ‘make day of night’, but they are better than ever she thought reality could be as her superlative ‘sunniest’ is modified to make it impossibly brighter.
If the opening octave sets out her feelings and desires, then the sestet serves to make a convincing argument out of them. The repetition of ‘thus only in a dream’ gives us only one possible conclusion to draw from her ideas. If only dreams enable them to be ‘at one’ and ‘give and take’ (which represents the bond of marriage), then the only conclusion is that ‘To die were surely sweeter than to live’. Notice that ‘give and take’ is inverted in the following line to ‘take or give’, which could represent the equality of the union she is dreaming about, with giving and taking roles being performed by both partners.
Rossetti suggests that ‘the faith maketh rich’ those who marry as it provides them with an eternal life together. Such is the strength of her faith that she believes this is the only possible path to happiness, as all else is given a time limit, which she can’t abide. The soothing sibilance of ‘sleep is sweeter’ and ‘surely sweeter’ position death as a welcome release from the agony of existence. Poor Rossetti is so distraught at the thought of losing this man, that she can only embrace her love once it is assured for eternity.
The final line also demonstrates the absolute power of her feelings. She doesn’t care that death would mean ‘nothing new beneath the sun’ as for her he is everything and the only thing she wants, so can do without anything else.
She sounds like she’d be a bit clingy to me 😉
The opening line is so powerful because she begins with this rich, emotional desire or longing for her subject, but the purity of this feeling is interrupted jarringly by the certainty of its ending with her waking. The brief pause serves to illustrate the frustration of her pleasant dreams that fade all too quickly to reveal reality.
The colon immediately after then sparks Rossetti’s desires to run on unchecked for two/two and a half lines (with enjambment linking the first and second lines), before we have another pair of caesuras in the fourth line, which hark back to the fear of her happy thoughts being short lived as the birds head off for warmer climes.
I mentioned it above, but you could comment on the repetition of ‘thus’ to make her argument seem conclusive and impossible to disagree with (despite the fact she’s clearly being an idiot!).
You could also talk generally about the split of the poem: with the octave setting out the problem of how crap life is without constant access to this chap; and then the sestet giving us a solution, to embrace death.
Her tone is all over the place in this sonnet. At first we have the loftiest of desires and you can almost hear her swooning while contemplating her love. However, this is sharply interrupted by reality on a number of occasions throughout the octave. In the sestet we have a fatalistic determination to embrace death, whether to escape the misery of life or to embrace the eternal dream of togetherness.