Saturday, November 27, 2021

Poem of the week / Rest by Christina Rossetti

Poem of the week: Rest by Christina Rossetti

This serene vision of death reads rather like the dream of a good night’s sleep


O Earth, lie heavily upon her eyes;
Seal her sweet eyes weary of watching, Earth;
Lie close around her; leave no room for mirth
With its harsh laughter, nor for sound of sighs.
She hath no questions, she hath no replies,
Hush’d in and curtain’d with a blessèd dearth
Of all that irk’d her from the hour of birth;
With stillness that is almost Paradise.
Darkness more clear than noonday holdeth her,
Silence more musical than any song;
Even her very heart has ceased to stir:
Until the morning of Eternity
Her rest shall not begin nor end, but be;
And when she wakes she will not think it long.

Carol Rumens
Mon 22 Nov 2021 10.00 GMT

Framed by Christina Rossetti in mainly secular terms, this prayer for rest seems at times simply a prayer for sleep. The state it evokes is nearly, but not quite, oblivion, a marginally conscious sense of succumbing to deliciously peaceful unconsciousness. While the sonnet’s title, Rest, inevitably carries the suggestion of death (and the closing lines reiterate this dimension) the opening plea, significantly, is to “Earth” itself. A certain sensory luxuriousness adheres to the substance – which is soil, planet and, perhaps, mother goddess. The chiasmic structure of the first two lines expresses earth’s all-encompassing solidity. Earth is also conceived almost as a visible form of darkness – the kind we may “see” when we close our eyes before dropping off . This earthen dark doesn’t only mercifully prevent sight but, in the poem, encloses the whole body and shuts down its responses.

The first four lines very effectively mime a settling-down process. Rossetti handles the iambic line lightly, for instance, introducing a dactyl at the start of line two (Seal her sweet eyes). The effect is of slight tremors or shudders as muscles relax, and consciousness recedes. The even breathing of deep sleep can be imagined in the steadily metrical and beautifully serene fifth line, “She hath no questions, she hath no replies … ” That steadiness of rhythm is sustained to the last line of the octet: “With stillness that is almost Paradise”.

The focus of “hushed in and curtained” seems to combine internal and external views. (A comparison with the sonnet After Death might be revealing). We see the speaker as a visitor to the bedside might, but we’re also still inside her mind, feeling the cessation of “all that irked her” and its exchange for the “stillness that is almost Paradise”. A particularly lyrical sestet finds the darkness clearer than “noonday” and yet it still “holds” her. There’s particular poignancy in such a music-loving and melodically attuned poet finding “Silence more musical than any song”. At this point, I feel convinced that the poem is autobiographical, despite the third-person point of view. The one who feels such an overwhelming peace in her imagined rest is the poet herself, “irked” for most of her life by severe ill-health besides being prey to turbulent mood swings: according to a Poetry Foundation essay, Christina and her brother Dante Gabriel were known during childhood as “the two storms”.

In line 11 of the sonnet, the cessation of “the very heart” seems, again, to suggest a process that belongs to metaphorical rather than literal death – and to signify primarily the loss of emotional reaction. There’s a sense now that every nerve has been sedated. The process seems closer to death, as the focus moves from unconsciousness to a wonderful evocation of timelessness in line 13. Rest, above all, means the exclusion of the sense of passing time.

The speaker will wake to “Eternity”, but the experience is described very much in terms of ordinary waking up. The last line gains its simple, colloquial power from this connecting sense of everyday experience. After an extra long sleep, we look at the clock in sheer disbelief and, as long as we haven’t missed some important deadline, satisfaction. “And when she wakes she will not think it long.” The theology of a recuperative post-mortem sleep seems liberal, compared with the demand for repentance in purgatory.

Rossetti is certainly doing something more serious than praising “care-charmer sleep” but her vision is communicated so well, I think, because she understands what it is to be tired and worn, and knows the sheer sweet pleasure of turning in for a night’s kip.

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