SOME REMINISCENCES
OF CHRISTINA ROSSETTI, cont'd

I think it was in January of 1886 that, for the last time, I heard Miss Rossetti read anything of her own. It was not long---some months, perhaps---since she had published one of the least known of her books, though one most characteristic and strangely fascinating, for all its Daily Companion appearance, and, in a sense, style. I am inclined to believe that Time Flies gave her more pleasure in contemplation than was afforded by any other book of hers. It is, of course, a religious "daily companion," and is occupied largely with strictly religious comments; but it has many delightful (and to those who knew Miss Rossetti, most characteristic) passages and anecdotes. Above all, however, it is notable for its lovely lyrics, interspersed throughout the volume like white and purple lilac-bushes in a lawned and gravelled convent garden. Sometimes there are lines of extraordinary poignancy and beauty, straight from the from the ecstasy lyric emotion wrought in heart and brain, as, for example, these lines, so appealing, as well as so idiosyncratic :

Turn, transfigured Pain
Sweetheart, turn again,
For fair Thou art as moonrise after rain.

But indeed the whole poem should be quoted:

Joy is but sorrow
While we know
It ends to-morrow---

      Even so!
Joy with lifted veil
Shows a face as pale
As the fair changing moon so fair and frail.

Pain is but pleasure,
If we know
It heaps up treasure:---

     Even so!
Turn, transfigured Pain,
Sweetheart, turn again, .
For fair Thou art as moonrise after Rain

In some of these lyrics there is a strange note of impassioned mysticism, as in the short rondeau for January 16, exemplified in these three lines

     Love weighs the event, the long pre-history
Meaures the depth beneath, the height above,
     The mystery with the ante-mystery.

In the lyric for March 7 there is a music like that of Gabriel Rossetti's Sea-Limits, a haunting ululation such as that of Tennyson's Crossing the Bar :

Earth has clear call of daily bells,
A rapture where the anthems are,
A chancel vault of gloom and stay,
A thunder where the organ swells
Alas, man's daily life---what else?---
Is out of tune with daily bells.

While Paradise accords the chimes
Of Earth and Heaven : its patient pause
Is rest fulfilling music's laws.
Saints sit and gaze, where oftentimes
Precursive flush of morning climbs
And air vibrates with coming chimes.

Of those she read me I am haunted most because of the exquisite cadence of her intonation, by the memory of one (that for March 5) beginning:

Where shall I find a white rose blowing ?
Out in the garden where all sweets be.
But out in my garden the snow was snowing,
And never a white rose opened for me,
Naught but snow and wind were blowing
          And snowing.

How well, too, I remember that February 11, No More; and this for March 3, a dialogue of Life and Death, with the Soul as protagonist---an actual protagonist, though here rather a ball between two players, dumb and passive in all its blind bafflings to and fro:

Laughing Life cries at the feast,---
     Craving Death cries at the door,---
     "Fish or fowl, or fatted beast ?
     Come with me thy feast is o'er!
Wreathe the violets." "Watch them fade."
     "I am sunlight. I am shade
     I am the sun-burying west. I am rest :
     Come with me, for I am best."

Since then how often I have recalled that marvellous yet so simple and obvious line, as Shakespearean as Gabriel Rossetti's "The sunrise blooms and withers on the hill, Like any hill-flower,"

the sun-burying west !

There were other fragmentary lines or couplets which impressed themselves keenly on the memory: for example,

All through this race of life which shelves
     Downward to death

and

Lo, the Hope we buried with sighs
     Alive in Death's eyes !

Time Flies is dedicated " To my Beloved Example, Friend, Mother."
After the death of Mrs. Rossetti her daughter devoted herself to her old aunts : Miss Charlotte Lydia Polidori who died in 1890 at the age of eighty-seven, and Miss Eliza Harriet Polidori at the age of eighty-four. There is now in Christ Church, Woburn Square, the pendant with star and crescent in diamonds which his imperial Majesty the Sultan presented to Miss Harriet Polidori, in recognition of her distinguished services as a nurse in the Crimean campaign.
In these sad and lonely last years Christina Rossetti published two books : a volume of Collected Devotional Poems (1883) and one of prose, consisting of keen and vivid commentaries on the Revelation of St. John, entitled, with characteristic humility, The Face of the Deep, for these she thought were but an individual ripple on the surface of revealed truth.
One of my most cherished memories is of a night at Birchington, on the Kentish coast, in March 1892. It had been a lovely day. Rossetti asked me to come out with him on the cliff for a stroll ; and though he leaned heavily, and dragged his limbs wearily as if in pain, he grew more cheerful as the sunlight warmed him. The sky was a cloudless blue, and the singing of at least a score of larks was wonderful to listen to. Everywhere spring odours prevailed, with an added pungency from the sea-wrack below. Beyond, the sea reached to far horizons of purple-shaded azure. At first I thought Rossetti was indifferent: the larks made merely a confused noise ; the sunglare spoilt the pleasure of the eyes ; the sea-breath carried with it a damp chill. But this mood gave way. He let go my arm, and stood staring seaward silently ; then, still in a low and tired voice, but with a new tone in it, he murmured, "It is beautiful---the world, and life itself. I am glad I have lived." Insensibly, thereafter, the dejection lifted from off his spirit, and for the rest of that day and evening he was noticeably less despondent.

The previous evening Christina Rossetti---then at Birchington on a nursing visit---Rossetti, and myself, were seated in semi-twilight in the long, low-roofed sitting-room of the Bungalow. She had been reading to him, but he had grown weary and somewhat fretful. Not wishing to disturb him, Miss Rossetti made a sign to me to come over to the window, and there drew my attention to a quiet-hued but very beautiful sunset. While we were gazing at it, Rossetti, having overheard an exclamation of almost rapturous delight from Christina, rose from his great armchair before the fire and walked feebly to the window. Thence he stared blankly upon the dove-tones and pale amethyst of the sky. I saw him glance curiously at his sister, and then look again long and earnestly. But at last, with a voice full of chagrin, he turned away indifferently, with the remark that he could not see what it was we admired so much. He projected his moods upon nature; nature did not induce them in him. "It is all grey and gloorn," he added; nor would he hear a word to the contrary, so ignorant was he of the havoc wrought upon his optic nerve by the chloral poison which did so much to shorten his life.
After he had gone to bed, Miss Rossetti spoke sadly of this dulling of his sensitiveness, and feared that it was indeed the beginning of the end. "Poor Gabriel," she added, " I wish he could have at least one hopeful hour again." It was with pleasure, therefore, that next day she heard what he had said upon the cliff, and how he had brightened.
The evening that followed was a happy one, for, as already narrated Rossetti grew so cheerful, relatively, that it seemed as though the shadow of death had lifted. What makes the episode so doubly memorable to me is that, when I opened the door for Miss Rossetti when she bade me goodnight, she turned, took my hand again, and said in a whisper, " I am so glad about Gabriel, and grateful."
After the death of Miss Harriet Polidori, Christina became almost a recluse. Of the burden of life she had long been weary and for surcease therefrom she longed without ceasing. Her death, at the festival of the Epiphany, a season which she herself has chronicled in lovely verse, must have come to her as the floodtide of a long-delayed happiness.
The weight of the pain of the world, the sorrow of life, had long made hard the blithe cheerfulness which she wore so passing well, though it was no garment chosen for its comeliness, but because of its refreshment for others. An ordered grace was hers in all things, and in this matter of cheerfulness she created what she did not inherit; rather she gained by prayer and renunciation and long control, a sunlit serenity which made her mind, for others, a delectable Eden, and her soul a paradise of fragrance and song.
Cheerfulness became a need of spiritual growth, as well as a thing seemly and delightful in itself. She had ever, in truth at least in later life---and my acquaintance with her extended over a period of twelve years---a gracious sweetness that was all her own. An exquisite taciturnity alternated with a not less exquisite courtesy of selfabandonment. She was too humble to speak much opinionatively, unless directly challenged, or skilfully allured ; while it seemed natural in her to consider that the centre of interest was in her companion of the moment and not in herself. Habitually she preferred the gold-glooms of silence; but she would, at the word of appeal, or even at the shyer lure which can express itself only through the eyes, come into the more garish light, or as it might be, the dusk of another's grief. It was impossible to have with her even the slightest degree of intimacy and not experience this quietude of charm-a quality that made her so remote of approach, but so near when reached. How often, thinking of her, I have considered those lines of Herbert:

Welcome heare feast of Lent. Who loves not thee
He loves not Temperance, or Authoritie.
     *       *       *      *       *
Beside the cleanesse of sweet abstinence,
Quick thoughts and motions at a small expense,
     A face not fearing light.

This "cleanness of sweet abstinence " was characteristic of the poetic inheritor of Herbert and Crashaw, whom most she resembles in quality of her genius, though she had more of fire and heal than the one, and less of sensuous exuberance than the other.
This is not the occasion for any critical analysis of her beautiful poetry. Its delicate music, its exquisite charm, are its proper ambassadors. Of her marvellous spontaneous art scarce anything better could be said by the most discriminating and authoritatve critic than is expressed in these lines of Shakespeare (The Winter's Tale)

                                   This is an art
Which does mend nature, change it rather, but
The art itself is nature.

1895

 

CONTENTS