Promises like Piecrust

Overview
Quite a sad poem where our poetic voice puts a stop to the dreams of a potential lover or husband by refusing to make a promise she fears could be broken either by herself or him. Depending upon the way you read it, you could see this as the paranoid fear of heartbreak from our poetic voice or the poetic voice communicating that she is not satisfied with the relationship and doesn’t want to commit.
Promises like Piecrust

Promise me no promises,
So will I not promise you;
Keep we both our liberties,
Never false and never true:
Let us hold the die uncast,
Free to come as free to go;
For I cannot know your past,
And of mine what can you know? 

You, so warm, may once have been
Warmer towards another one;
I, so cold, may once have seen
Sunlight, once have felt the sun:
Who shall show us if it was
Thus indeed in time of old?
Fades the image from the glass
And the fortune is not told.

If you promised, you might grieve
For lost liberty again;
If I promised, I believe
I should fret to break the chain:
Let us be the friends we were,
Nothing more but nothing less;
Many thrive on frugal fare
Who would perish of excess.

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

ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Completely forgot to fill this in before publishing – how unprofessional! I hope you can forgive me.

I can’t find any information about where this was first published as it doesn’t seem to have been published in any of her collections other than the posthumously published Poetic Works of Christina Rossetti, which notes that it was composed in 1861, just before Goblin Market and Other Poems was published (1862). I am quite prepared and hoping to be corrected on this.

If the date is correct then this would place the composition between Rossetti’s second and third rejected proposal and could be her positioning herself into accepting that friendship was a more suitable type of relationship for her to pursue. However, this could just be nonsense. Please help if you have any other details.

 Themes

I’d associate this with gender as it is quite a strong and bold image of a woman calling the shots in the patriarchal Victorian society.

Also, I think there is a clear connection with the struggle between faith and earthly temptation if you choose to interpret the poem as being focused on avoiding heartbreak rather than just being an expression of disinterest.

Content

Let’s start with the title. Unusually for Rossetti it doesn’t appear in the poem itself. The title may remind you of some lyrics from an Ed Sheeran song (if not listen here and see if you can spot the line I’m on about) and the sentiment is the same. Pastry and piecrust crumble (although my mum would argue against this with a good pastry) and if you compare them to a promise, it is not ideal. A promise is meant to be a solid statement that is unbreakable or unmovable and pastry is made to be smashed by a hungry, fork wielding maniac.

The opening stanza is pretty simple. Our poetic voice states that she neither wants nor wants to give promises to the person being addressed – presumably this is a lover and the promise she is referring to is marriage and commitment to each other. She emphasises this by talking about freedom and avoiding a situation where one or the other would have to lie to another and they be cast in a permanent state of affairs or behaviour.

The end of the first stanza suggests why; she mentions not knowing his past and the uncertainty he must have about her. This suggests to me that there is an issue with trust and she is uncertain about whether his promise would be constant and unbreakable.

The second stanza is the part where the poem could be interpreted as our poetic voice being disinterested. Rossetti mentions the man’s warmth towards our protagonist and questions whether he has ever been ‘warmer’. Relate warmth to passion and love and we have a question of the depth or sincerity of his emotions, as well as questions about whether it would not be possible for his feelings to be surpassed in relation to another. Our protagonist’s feelings are described as ‘so cold’ and thus could represent disinterest and suggest she is not as interested in this chap as others in her past. Again she ends by stating the impossibility of knowing each others emotional past.

In the final stanza she restates the point about promises potentially being broken. If he did promise he might get fed up and want his freedom again, and she is positive that she would want to break away from the promise suggesting she doesn’t feel particularly sure about this chap at all. Instead she suggests friendship which will be secure, long-lasting and happy, rather than taking the risk of marriage and a relationship with the potential for disaster and heartbreak.

Language and techniques

Make sure you deal with the imagery and simile of the title. I’ve explained it above and if you need to understand this better follow these steps: (1) bake a pie (preferably something tasty like steak or chicken and mushroom with a flaky pastry); (2) throw it to the floor aggressively; (3) observe the condition of the pastry/piecrust; (4) get a fork and eat the pie from the floor.

The opening line repeat the idea of ‘no promises’ several times to make this an emphatic statement of her feelings. I’d also comment on her choice of language to define promises through her expression of life  – she talks about promises as denying ‘liberties’, which is an emotive word related to freedom and always makes me think about the alternative being oppression or imprisonment. In addition, she highlights the constraints of a promise or marriage as without it one is ‘never false and never true’ and therefore does not have to justify their actions or behaviours. You could almost read this as being an idea of promiscuity where she is suggesting she doesn’t want to have to commit to one lover and then cheat on him, which would be a radical idea in Victorian times, particularly for a woman. However, knowing Rossetti she is probably just referring to personal commitment and dedication to a lover. If they are ‘uncast’ they are not fixed in one set of behaviour.

The most interesting part of the poem is at the end of the first stanza. This rhetorical question about each others’ pasts is really intriguing. Is she reluctant to commit for fear that she will not necessarily be the love of his life and he to her? – ‘for I cannot know your past’. There is always that doubt in relationships: would your partner move on if their idea of perfection appeared? Was there someone else in their past that inspired more passion and devotion? We can never know and it can drive people wild with suspicious and make them jealous of a potential hidden shadow of our former or future lives. This is further communicated by the final four lines of the second stanza.

This is the only bit of the poem that makes me think that our protagonist may actually have feelings for the man, but just be trying to avoid emotional exposure and the potential of heartbreak. However, it is easy to argue that this is just Rossetti presenting the idea as something to convince the chap that they are better off not committing.

I’ve explained the analogy between the relative heat of our poetic voice and the addressed above, temperature is often used or related to emotions and I see nothing radical going on here.

In the third stanza, be sure to mention the way Rossetti is presenting this information. Although this is nominally a rejection she frames it in positive terms. She is trying to prevent ‘grie[f]/For lost liberty again’ for her lover and therefore this rejection is for his own good. However, less pleasant is the description of her feelings: ‘I believe/I should fret to break the chain’. She is fairly certain she would not be satisfied with this man and would feel imprisoned (‘chain’) and want to escape.

I like the final quatrain though, she’s trying to make him feel better and shows that she values his friendship. When she says ‘Many thrive on frugal fair’ she means that lots of people enjoy happy and long lives as friends, while those who marry and seek ‘excess’ happiness and bliss often ‘perish’ to heartbreak or external desires.

Structure

Not much here. You could argue the regularity, the pace of the poem (enjambment everywhere) and the simplicity of the rhyme scheme and rhyming words are used to control the tone as it is relatively quick and authoritatively read, not lingering on the unpleasantness of this rejection and quickly reaching the positive of friendship at the end.

In a similar way, rhetorical questions are used to let the chap down more gently. He is made to question whether he does not have the same doubts as our poetic voice and they are designed to make him think about whether commitment would really suit him in the long-term.

Tone

Friendly, but assertive. I don’t think our poetic voice is going to change her mind here and she certainly doesn’t seem to hold any great passion for the gentleman concerned; however, she values his friendship and tries to reject him in the kindest way she can.

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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