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Michael Field’ was a joint pen-name used by Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper. Their elegy ‘To Christina Rossetti’ (1896) was written after Rossetti’s death in 1894.

Lady, we would behold thee moving bright
As Beatrice or Matilda mid the trees,
Alas! thy moan was as a moan for ease
And passage through cool shadows to the night:
Fleeing from love, hadst thou not poet’s right
To slip into the universe? The seas
Are fathomless to rivers drowned in these,
And sorrow is secure in leafy light.
Ah, had this secret touched thee, in a tomb
Thou hadst not buried thy enchanting self,
As happy Syrinx murmuring with the wind,
Or Daphne thrilled through all her mystic bloom,
From safe recess as genius or as elf,
Thou hadst breathed joy in earth and in thy kind.

What does this mean? Why do the speakers want to see Rossetti emulate Dante’s Beatrice and Matilda? What was Rossetti’s “moan”? How does a poet “slip into the universe”? What do seas, rivers and “leafy light” symbolize? In what “tomb” do the speakers regret that Rossetti buried herself? In what way are the nymphs Syrinx and Daphne good role models? What are “safe recess” and “thy kind”? What retrospective advice are the speakers giving Rossetti?

  • I would say that "to pass through cool shadows to the night" and "to slip into the universe" both mean "to die". And why don't you think this, in Highgate Cemetary, is her tomb? I think the main conceit of the poem is that somehow she lives on in her poetry, but I don't quite see how everything relates. – Peter Shor Feb 24 at 13:15
  • In your reading (where “slip into the universe” = “die”) the “secret” of line 9 would seem to be that a poet has the right to die. But this is not much of a secret, and it is hard to see how knowing it would have prevented her from being buried in Highgate Cemetery! So I think there must be another way to read it. – Gareth Rees Feb 24 at 15:56
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I don't completely understand the poem, but I have some observations.

Let's start with the nymphs at the end.

Syrinx was a nymph who was being sexually pursued by Pan, and was changed into reeds to escape (from which Pan cut his panpipes). Daphne was a nymph being sexually pursued by Apollo, and was turned into a laurel tree to escape.

So the lines

Fleeing from love, hadst thou not poet’s right
To slip into the universe?

seem to mean: to be changed into a part of nature rather than dying. The next lines:

The seas
are fathomless to rivers drowned in these,

suggest that maybe she could have turned into a river, while

And sorrow is secure in leafy light,

maybe suggests that she might have turned into a tree.

Unfortunately, in the poem she seems not to have realized she had this option:

Alas! thy moan was as a moan for ease
And passage through cool shadows to the night.

Was Rossetti really fleeing from love? She never married, and some people believe that she was lesbian; although since she was religious, she would probably have been conflicted over her attraction to women, and not acted on it. Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, the two women whose pen-name was Michael Field, were indeed lesbians.

My analysis above gives this poem a rather bizarre meaning — don't die, but change into something in nature; How? — and it seems to me that there is a further reading beneath that one, well-concealed because it was so subversive. This would be: "don't run from your sexuality, but embrace it, while still concealing it from the world." The last lines point to this meaning:

Ah, had this secret touched thee, in a tomb
Thou hadst not buried thy enchanting self,
... From safe recess as genius or as elf,
Thou hadst breathed joy in earth and in thy kind.

I still don't quite see how everything fits together (why Beatrice and Matilda, for example?), but I think this is a reasonable start at the interpretation of the poem.

| improve this answer | |
  • This was my reading too, and I suspect the difficulty in making it out is deliberate. – Gareth Rees Feb 25 at 12:41
  • @Gareth: So it has two possible readings to ensure plausible deniability? That wasn't what we actually meant – that's just your dirty mind at work? – Peter Shor Feb 25 at 13:05
  • Looking online, Beatrice and Matilda are probably included because they are muses. – Peter Shor Feb 25 at 13:46
  • Well maybe not quite deniability as such, but just enough obscurity so that readers in the know will understand and other readers will just be puzzled. – Gareth Rees Feb 25 at 14:20

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