A Poem for the Second Day of Summer. Rereading Christina Rossetti’s Summer
I have a very soft spot for Christina Rossetti’s poetry, especially her short, intense verses, full of symbolism and feeling. Summer was published in The Prince’s Progress, and Other Poems, in 1866
Winter is cold-hearted,
Spring is yea and nay,
Autumn is a weathercock
Blown every way.
Summer days for me
When every leaf is on its tree;
When Robin’s not a beggar,
And Jenny Wren’s a bride,
And larks hang singing, singing, singing
Over the wheat-fields wide,
And anchored lilies ride,
And the pendulum spider
Swings from side to side;
And blue-black beetles transact business,
And gnats fly in a host,
And furry caterpillars hasten
That no time be lost
And moths grow fat and thrive,
And ladybirds arrive
Before green apples blush,
Before green nuts embrown,
Why one day in the country
Is worth a month in town;
Is worth a day and a year
Of the dusty, musty, lag-last fashion
That days drone elsewhere.
I love the way she starts by comparing summer to the other three seasons, telling us it is her favourite. In the second and third stanzas she elaborates on her reasons, which are based on the natural elements which abound: robins, wrens, larks, lilies, and insects, all ‘grow fat and thrive’. The final stanza concludes that these wonderful summer days should be enjoyed in the country, where these wonderful plants and animals can be appreciated, and not in the ‘dusty, musty, lag-last fashion’ city.
Christina Rossetti was born and brought up in London in an artistic family of Italian parents. Her father was the poet Gabriele Rossetti, a Dante scholar who became professor of Italian at King’s College, London. Her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, also a poet and a painter. The four Rossetti siblings were educated by their mother, Frances Rossetti, a former governess.
She was a precocious poet, whose poems were privately published by her grandfather in 1842, when she was twelve! At the age of twenty, she published seven poems in the Pre-Raphaelite journal The Germ, founded by her brother William Michael Rossetti) under the pseudonym, Ellen Alleyne. Read more about Christina Rossetti and the pre-Raphaelites
Rossetti’s best-known work, is her long poem, Goblin Market and Other Poems, which was published in 1862, and established her as a significant voice in Victorian poetry.
Christina Rossetti and her mother
By the 1880s, recurrent illness restricted her social life, although she continued to write poems. In 1891, Rossetti developed cancer, of which she died in London on December 29, 1894. Rossetti’s brother, William Michael, edited her collected works in 1904, however the Complete Poems were not published before 1979.
Her poem Summer refers to her happiest childhood memories which were the summer holidays spent in her Grandfather Polidori’s home, Holmer Green, in Buckinghamshire. The Rossetti children spent their days discovering the landscape around them and the animals that lived there. It must have been a welcome change from industrial and overcrowded Victorian London, where she lived for most of her life.
Rossetti was a fervent Anglican, and she was aware of women’s underprivileged place in society. This led her to spend some years working with “fallen women” at Highgate institution, run by the Diocese of London, where they received religious education and were instructed in housework, to enable them to secure employment as maids. Her experiences at Highgate are a likely source of inspiration for “Goblin Market“, as well as a probable purpose for the poem, which she probably read to the women as a means of moral instruction.
I agree with many scholars, that she was, no doubt, a Victorian intellectual, subject to sexual, religious, and patriarchal repression. It is therefore in her poetry that we can attempt to glimpse and the power and contained feeling she kept under lock and key in her disciplined mind.
Summer is one of her few optimistic poems, unfortunately, it has a pessimistic counterpart.
Summer is Ended
To think that this meaningless thing was ever a rose,
Scentless, colourless, this!
Will it ever be thus (who knows?)
Thus with our bliss,
If we wait till the close?
Though we care not to wait for the end, there comes the end
Sooner, later, at last,
Which nothing can mar, nothing mend:
An end locked fast,
Bent we cannot re-bend.
Summer is Ended was published in her 1881 volume, A Pageant and Other Poems. Its title is derived from a passage in the Old Testament book, Jeremiah:
The harvest is past,
the summer has ended,
and we are not saved.
By this time in her life, she was overtaken by recurrent and invalidating illness. She had also refused several suitors, wishing to remain a spinster. This poem is melancholic, and nostalgic. it reminds us that the splendid summer must end, and give way to a wilting rose, in the same way as our lives, too, will come to a close.
I didn’t intend to end on this ‘sad’ note, so let’s remember that today is the second day of summer, and we still have about ninety days of lazy, hazy, long sunny days ahead of us, and when the summer is gone, I have another delicious poem waiting for you.
I love autumn, and I’m sure it’s partly due to John Keats poem, Ode to Autumn, but that will come in September…