Alice Meynell

 

 

Christina Rossetti

 

Text
Editionsbericht
Literatur

 

THERE is assuredly but one opinion as to the poet who has lately passed from earth, though that opinion varies in degree. All who have human hearts confess her to be a sad and a sweet poet, all who have a sense of poetry know how rare was the quality of poetry in her – how spiritual and how sensuous – somewhat thin, somewhat dispread in her laxer writing, but perfectly strong, perfectly impassioned in her best. To the name of poet her right is so sure that proof of it is to be found everywhere in her "unconsidercd ways," and always irrefutably. How does this poet or that approach the best beauties of his poem? From the side of poetry, or from the side of commonplace? Christina Rossetti always drew near from the side of poetry: from what to us, who are not altogether poets, is the further side. She came from beyond those hills. She is not often on the heights, but all her access is by poetry. Of few indeed is this so true.

Poetry is the rarest thing in the world. Moreover, being rare, it has its own rarities, which are to the poem what the poem is to "customary life's exceeding injocundity." We do no wrong to a fine poet in speaking of his rare great moments. His manner of approaching these – his direction – gives us the pleasure of giving him a long welcome. It is the daily life of his muse. Even poets who are not great have had fine moments: approaching them, doubtless, through commonplace, but certainly reaching them. And approach is so important, so significant of origin, so marked with character, so charged with memories, so full of preparation, so indicative of sequestered life, that one might well consider it the history of all that lives and growls. It is, in short, life with direction. And, even if so to consider it be to yield to some temptation to digress, let a few words, to set it forth, be excused here. Approach is fit to dwell upon, and has leisure, and no beaten or definite pathways. It is the day by day, the waking and sleeping, the temper and the nature. In love it is all the justification, for without a whole approach, love is profanity. In poetry approach is [202] as perceptible as the quarter of the wind. Whence comes this flight of song? Over soft seas or dry lands? Either flight crowns the same heights. See, too, how much is approach in the art of architecture. A great building may be held to be as it were organic beyond its apparent boundaries, and to have the land, the city, the street, for its approaches; for its accessories the climate and the cloud. And it is worth while to note that a people which has lost almost all besides in the building of its towns, has still the sense of access. Its architects of the Renaissance turned that sense too consciously to artifice. They were too much aware of their own instinct. They took too large and too deliberate, too courtly, a gesture. They swept too far, and trusted so little to the felicity whereby a great church makes itself a centre – somewhat as the sunset disposes the clouds radiant from a centre in its brows – that they seem now and then to work against the natural good luck and to convince you of over-much purpose. Bernini knew too well that he had the sense of distance, and by taking thought he added many a rood to the outposts of St. Peter's; and you wonder that the sky does not close with his design.

In poetry approach is, needless to say, far more subtle. It is the unapparent history of a poem. Some poets let us see but little of it. Others permit us to trace their way to their successes, and we sometimes see that they have trudged a common or a difficult path, and one that has known our own feet and our friends'. Christina Rossetti allows us to see how purely poetic was all her least success and her unsuccess. We willingly linger in an easy world which is, with her, not only easy but perpetually beautiful. No less easy was her supreme success: for it is impossible to think that she did herself any violence by close work upon her art. All she touches is fine poetic material, albeit material that is often somewhat scattered. She has no unhandsome secrets of composition, or difficulties of attainment. She keeps the intimate court of a queen. The country of poetry is her home, and she is a "manifest housekeeper," and does nothing out of it. As for the stanzas and passages – but they are oftener whole brief lyrics – in which she reaches the point of poetic passion, they have the stress of purpose which, when it knows how to declare itself, is art indeed. The moment of poetic passion solves all doubts as to art. Not that it can possibly take the place of art or make amends for art absent, as some strange criticism would have us think. It proves art present, and present [203] essentially. Not a verse that manifests the life with which it was written can be a verse of less than triumphant art.

When we are judging the work of any poet under the rank of absolute greatness, we can hardly do otherwise than judge the technique with a more or less separate judgment. It may be a paradox to some readers, nevertheless it seems to be a great truth: that the more splendid the poetry the more august in importance is what, with lesser work, would be called the "mere form." It rises to such dignity that in the highest poetry the verse, the versification, is the very Muse. But fine poetry of a lower rank is to be judged in parts; and what I claim for it here is that some little failure, or fault, of mere technique by no means prevents or bars the art of a true expression. We are not to reverence the versification of Christina Rossetti as we have learnt to reverence that of a great and classic master. She proves herself an artist, a possessor of the weighty matters of the law of art, despite the characteristic carelessness with which she played by ear. That thought so moving, feeling so urgent, as the thought and feeling of her Convent Threshold are communicated, are uttered alive, proves her an artist. This is to be insisted upon, because during her life it was said with hesitation, by a critic of evident authority, "At its best her work is almost art": so conspicuous had the obvious and as it were external faults seemed to him. To hazard another paradox: technique is not all external. In this poem – it is impossible not to dwell on such a masterpiece – without imagery; without beauty except that which is inevitable (and what beauty is more costly?); without grace, except the invincible grace of impassioned poetry; without music, except the ultimate music of the communicating word, she utters that immortal song of love and that cry of more than earthly fear: a song of penitence for love that yet praises love more fervently than would a chorus hymeneal:

To-day, while it is called to-day,
Kneel, wrestle, knock, do violence, pray.
      .       .       .       .       .
I turn from you my cheeks and eyes,
My hair which you shall see no more.
Alas for joy that went before!

My words were slow, my tears were few,
But through the dark my silence broke.

In Amor Mundi, also, there is terror, though it be terror that is not instant, but that flies and sings, as ominous as a bird of warning – terror [204] suggested, not suffered, as it is profoundly suffered in The Convent Threshold. In The Three Enemies, again, fear is uttered, not sharply but, with a constant sense of

              The sadness of all sin
When looked at in the light of love.

And, by-the-bye, while the lax ways of Christina Rossetti's versification are matters of frequent criticism, the artistic perfection of these twelve stanzas of The Three Enemies should be insisted on. Equally perfect are Uphill, Advent and some ten more: all pieces written with the full number of syllables. She has here a strong and gentle brevity without haste, a beauty of phrasing, a finality, a sense of structure and stability, with the freedom of life, scarce possible to surpass. Wherever she writes by rule, she uses that rule admirably well. It is only in the lax metres wihich keep – more or less – musical time rather than account of numbers, that one might wish she had more theory. Her versification then is apt to be ambiguous and even incorrect. Take the beautiful lyric at the end of The Prince's Progress, though many other passages might be cited. It seems, in one stanza, that the poet has chosen to let the beats of her time fall – punctually and with full measure of time – now upon a syllable and now upon a rest within the line; so that the metre goes finely to time, like a nursery song for the rocking of a cradle. But then the succeeding stanza is, as often as not, written with no rule except that of numbers and accents. One stanza thrown doubt upon the others. Read the poem which way you will, there is no assurance as to the number of beats which she intended. It may be answered that ambiguity is difficult to avoid in a language which interchanges accent and quantity, and has few syllables which may not be used as long or short according to a writer's will; and that there is not much to hinder any man from reading Michael Drayton's Agincourt or his Trent as laxly dactyllic poems (one must, for convenience, take Coleridge's permission to use such words, made for quantitative verse, to describe the mixed verse of English poetry):

Fair stood the wind for France.

This is a line of four beats, and makes fine "march-music." But it may be read with two. If Drayton cannot help ambiguity, it is the fault of the language. This is true. But at least his ambiguity is just so much as is inevitable. He gives you the alternative throughout this Ballad of Agincourt.

[205] Now, even if Christina Rossetti has more than the inevitable ambiguity, and really mingles her measures, she has done a very serious service to English versification by using afresh this voice of poetry – the voice that sings in musical time. It had been much neglected since Coleridge, and he used it so seldom! That is, he used redundant syllables freely, but a rest within the line most rarely:

Is the night chilly and dark?

This is one of the most beautiful of all lines written with a mid-line rest. Christina Rossetti sweetly wrote with rests in her unpremeditated art; and others have caught the sound of this metre and have used it beautifully – Irish poets especially, as it happens. The great iambic line, the national heroic line, need have nothing to fear from this young and elastic metre. For the two ways are separately right, as in another art are the ways of Gluck and Wagner. But it will be an excellent thing if poetry in the future, when in the mood for greater movement, shall spring upon such a fantastic foot as that of Coleridge's line, just cited, or of Christina Rossetti's three-beat line in The Prince s Progress:

Hark! the bride weepeth!

It will be well for our writers that they should take this strong, controlled, and leaping movement, that goes on living feet or living wings, instead of the precipitate, and therefore rather helpless, haste of metres for a long time too exclusively in use for the swifter lyrics:

Before the beginning of years,

for instance, or:

Cannon to left of them.

These two verses are those of great poets. But does not the metre of these even rather trip and fall? And in lesser hands we all know that these anapæsts and dactyls produce the most popular effect with a really vulgar music. They are so slight, too, that they flatter our national way of speaking slippingly, without taking hold. If Coleridge's hint comes to be better obeyed, it will be much for the sake of Christina Rossetti's lovely example.

Those last words seem to rebuke for their slightness all the things written in this brief article, as they suggested themselves to a lover of her poetry. Her lovelier example is in the motive of all her song. Its sadness was the one all-human sadness, its fear the one true fear. She, [206] acquainted with grief, found in grief no cause of offence. She left revolt to the emotion of mere spectators and strangers. When one of the many widows of the monarchs of France heard of the murder of her son and whispered, "I will not say, my God, that it is too much, but it is much," she told one of the secrets of sorrow. The poet and saint who has now passed from a world she never loved, lived a life of sacrifice, suffered many partings, unreluctantly endured the pains of her spirituality; but she kept, in their quickness, her simple and natural love of love and hope of joy, for another time. Such sufferings as hers do indeed refuse, but they have not denied, delight. Delight is all their faith.

 

 

 

 

Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The New Review.
Bd. 12, 1895, Nr. 69, Februar, S. 201-206.

Gezeichnet: ALICE MEYNELL.

URL: https://archive.org/details/newreview12unkngoog


The New Review   online
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/007916511
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000060795
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008884955

The New Review  inhaltsanalytische Bibliographie
The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, 1824-1900.
Hrsg. von Walter E. Houghton. Bd. 3. Toronto 1979

 

 

Zeitschriften-Repertorium

 

Neudruck

 

 

 

Literatur

Atkinson, Damian (Hrsg.): The Selected Letters of Alice Meynell: Poet and Essayist. Newcastle upon Tyne 2013.

Blair, Kirstie: Victorian Poetry and the Culture of the Heart. Oxford u.a. 2006.

Brandmeyer, Rudolf: Poetiken der Lyrik: Von der Normpoetik zur Autorenpoetik. In: Handbuch Lyrik. Theorie, Analyse, Geschichte. Hrsg. von Dieter Lamping. 2. Aufl. Stuttgart 2016, S. 2-15.

Gray, F. Elizabeth (Hrsg): Women in Journalism at the Fin de Siècle. 'Making a Name for Herself'. London 2012.

Hughes, Linda K. (Hrsg.): The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Women's Poetry. Cambridge 2019.

Humphries, Simon (Hrsg.): Christina Rossetti. The Critical Heritage. London 2019.

Martin, Meredith: The Rise and Fall of Meter. Poetry and English National Culture, 1860-1930. Princeton u.a. 2012.

Martin, Meredith: Alice Meynell, Again and Again. In: The Oxford Handbook of Victorian Poetry. Hrsg. von Matthew Bevis. Oxford u.a. 2013, S.  579-590.

Martin, Meredith: Prosody. In: The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Women's Poetry. Hrsg. von Linda K. Hughes. Cambridge 2019, S. 28-44.

Martus, Steffen u.a. (Hrsg.): Lyrik im 19. Jahrhundert. Gattungspoetik als Reflexionsmedium der Kultur. Bern u.a. 2005 (= Publikationen zur Zeitschrift für Germanistik, 11).

Mason, Emma: Christina Rossetti. Poetry, Ecology, Faith. Oxford 2018.

Prins, Yopie: Patmore's Law, Meynell's Rhythm. In: The Fin-de-Siècle Poem: English Literary Culture and the 1890s. Hrsg. von Joseph Bristow. Athens, OH 2005, S. 261-284.

Schlack, Beverly A.: The 'Poetess of Poets'. Alice Meynell Rediscovered. In: Women's Studies 7 (1980), S. 111-126.

Sullivan, Hannah: Emerging Poetic Forms. In: Late Victorian into Modern. Hrsg. von Laura Marcus u.a. Oxford 2016, S. 103-118.

Vadillo, Ana P.: Women Poets and Urban Aestheticism. Passengers of Modernity. Basingstoke 2005.

 

 

Edition
Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer