Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson: The Contrary, Cyclical Prophet-Poetesses

In the late winter of 1964, Joseph Brodsky was put on trial. His crime, according to the Soviet regime, was for being a “freeloader” on the State. Of course, this was the farce for which the regime could, legally, charge him. The fact was he was a poet. And though not a particularly politically active man, he was dangerous for his thoughts. More dangerous, still, was that the State could neither decipher nor validate the possible impact of Brodsky’s art, nor the thoughts his poetry would stir. Below is a small portion of the transcript of his trial:

JUDGE: Tell the court why in between jobs you didn’t work and led a parasitic life style?

BRODSKY: I worked in between jobs. I did what I do now: I wrote poems.

JUDGE: What did you do for your motherland?

BRODSKY: I wrote poems. That is my work. I am convinced … I believe that what I wrote will be useful to people not only now but in future generations.

JUDGE: So you think your so-called poems are good for people?

BRODSKY: Why do you say of the poems that they are “so-called”?

JUDGE: We say that because we don’t have any other idea about them.

( The New Yorker, Gessen 3)

It’s impossible to guess if Brodsky, especially prior to his exile to the West, had ever heard of Christina Rossetti or Emily Dickinson, let alone have read them. What are the chances of a young man living behind the Iron Curtain to have been given the opportunity to study 19th century Western female poets? My estimate is not very high. And yet, if he was given the chance to know of them, perhaps he would have found comfort in realizing that he wasn’t the first and only “prophet deemed a stranger in his own land.” Like Brodsky, Rossetti and Dickinson held deep convictions that their work – their Art – served a purpose worth the time and energy they had spent. And, also like Brodsky, they were recipients of misunderstanding by the greater public for whom their art was trying to serve. (This holds especially true for Dickinson). In fact, the greatest link between these three poets is their desire for respect, understanding, and securing both a personal and societal validation of their art.

How is this validation accomplished? For Brodsky, talent and the intricacies of political ideologies. Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson, on the other hand, are not so much political exiles with a voice, but artist-exiles with a drive to show just how rightfully they have earned the title of Poet.

A portion of this drive is seen through their extensive use of binary opposition in the language and conceptual nature of their poetry, that Rossetti and Dickinson can create a sense of unity – circumference – through duality. The very fact they are women taking and making the art their own is a paradox, when juxtaposed against the cultural norm that poetry of their liking belonged to men. Rather than usurping it from men, and consequently falling into mimicry as plagiarizing thieves, Rossetti and Dickinson almost literally take a page out of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s book. In speaking of Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, Helen Cooper can just as easily be discussing Rossetti and Dickinson when stating, “it combines a female speaker with a hitherto male-defined activity. The male epic tradition and the female novel form her own voice,” (Cooper 147). Replace “epic” with “poetic,” and one can see the way Rossetti and Dickinson justify their claim to stand alongside Milton and the rest of his boys’ club.

This purposeful usage of duality, or paradox, allows room for interpretation – thereby providing unified meaning. (For the intents of this essay, the idea of unified meaning will be determined as reconciliation, which leads to validation). It is when “embodying itself in symbols” does the poetry of Rossetti and Dickinson ascend to the charge and hope of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson – that of becoming “god-like in their prophetic voices,” and ultimately carving out a place in the History of Poetic Art.

To illustrate this embodiment of poetry within symbols to create a prophetic voice, I will be exploring binary opposition in Rossetti’s “The Goblin Market” and in Dickinson’s poem 1547, due to their sharing similar thematic elements. In exploring the use and reconciliation of binary opposition in these poems can an understanding of artistic and conceptual validation be recognized.

“The Goblin Market” stands out for its brazen and unapologetic sensuality. Unexpected and gutsy even today, given its traditional fable format with set meter and rhyme, calling it shocking for readers in the 19th century would be an understatement. Especially since a single woman – a devoutly religious one at that – is its creative author. Rossetti consciously plays with the societal expectations of what is deemed appropriate for herself as an artist, and for the public as an art, by couching the binary constructs (Good/Evil; Obedient/Disobedient; Fallen/Redeemed) found in society into this poem. At once a cautionary tale as well as an exploratory adventure, “The Goblin Market” both attracts and repels the reader with its vivid, stark imagery and word-play. In this way, by juxtaposing the duality of society – made corporeal by sisters Laura and Lizzie – a unified meaning can be derived.

From the very first line of the poem we are confronted with binary opposition, “Morning and evening.” It’s important to recognize this quick pace towards reconciliation that Rossetti masterfully constructs with these three simple words. “Morning and evening” are more than a writer’s device to provide a sense of time; these are words loaded with metaphor and allegory in the societal lexicon. A sense of foreshadowing, if not foreboding or conflict, will come to the forefront of the reader’s mind. Morning – what is that? It is open, all action free in the light of day, clean, full of hope and possibility. Evening is the death, or closing, of that day’s possibility; evening connotes the encroachment of darkness where shadows grow and secrets can hide. Danger lurks between Rossetti’s “Morning and evening.”

Danger of what, for whom? For the maids, Laura and Lizzie – again, “maid” a word brimming with meaning. They are as pure and hopeful as the “morning.” Too, it is no accident that these maids are sisters – sharing the same blood and values as well as being distinct individuals. Yet, because of the nature of their physical and emotional relationship, their individual choices necessitate action and reaction on the part of the other. They are nature’s biological binary opposites.

And what are these maids in danger of? The creatures of the evening – impure goblins, set to destroy maidenly hope and possibility. Lizzie is fully aware of this very real danger associated with evening. She belatedly warns her already goblin-ensnared Laura, “Dear, you should not stay so late, / Twilight is not good for maidens; should not loiter in the glen/ In the haunts of goblin men,” (lines 143 – 146). (Even here we see duality, with the one sister in full knowledge and the other ignorant). At this point the warning comes too late for Laura and meaning, for the reader, is now created through an irony born out of duality. Knowing that whatever Lizzie chooses will effect Laura’s ability to choose, the reader can associate Lizzie with morning, and Laura with evening. As one sister (Laura) closes herself to the other, Lizzie will open herself to Laura. Hassett, discussing the role of the ill-fated Jeannie in the minds of Laura and Lizzie, suggests the usefulness of dual narratives in the poem: “Songlike litanies arrest the flow and ruffle the implication of already ambiguous episodes as two poems, or rather two kinds of poetry, interweave to form the whole,” (Hassett 17). Reconciliation will be, must be, achieved in order for the poem to gain a sense of validation.

Binary opposition abounds in Rossetti’s narrative, but perhaps none is so powerful as the paradox of desire which both sisters feel. It’s this paradox of desire that leads Laura and Lizzie to reconciliation – both with each other and in the larger frame of the poem. Note that the objects of desire may differ, yet their passion in desiring is equally as all-consuming despite what it is they are desiring. It is this all-consuming passionate desire that necessitates the reconciliation, and not the desired objects.

Laura wants to taste the forbidden fruit, and know the goblin men. Lizzie wants to run away from them. Once Laura gives into temptation, her desire for more fruit only increases and of course, as a way for Rossetti to build on the later reconciliation, the goblin men refuse her – the binary opposition of supplication/rejection. Lizzie, acting on her sister’s actions, chooses to find those whom she originally shunned in order to restore her fallen sister. This sentiment of shared destiny (a sharing which comes from binary opposition) is clear in lines 299 – 301. “Tender Lizzie could not bear/ to watch her sister’s cankerous care/ yet not share.”

When Lizzie meets the goblin-men, it is their turn to entreat, supplicate, and finally coerce her. Though tainted with their fruit’s juices, she ultimately denies and rejects them only to, in turn, supplicate and entreat her sister to “make much of [her]” (line 472). At first submitting – perhaps with anticipated delight at what once gave her such pleasure – Laura’s second taste of the fruit almost kills her. “Pleasure past and anguish past/ Is it death or is it Life?” (lines 522 – 523). This form of questioning after Laura and Lizzie’s physical traumas is key. With the absence of a binary opposition – the removal of pleasure and anguish – their lives hang in the balance. Whereas Laura’s physical life is unsure, Lizzie’s emotional life is equally as dubious. If Laura dies – her sister, her other half – what becomes of her then? Doubt abounds when the duality is negated.

But like the continuous cycle of “Morning and evening,” there is always forward movement. For both Laura and Lizzie there is “Life out of death,” (line 524). Reconciliation, and therefore validation, is achieved. But how, if two lines prior, a duality has been negated into a sum zero?

The answer to this question falls back, again, to the binary nature of desire. Or, as Hassett so aptly explains, “balked desire.” It’s the paradox of the sisters’ natures combined with their motives of desire that validate the reconciliation. “The fable presents two encounters with the paradox of desire, with the contradictory excitements that can feel like a thrilling affliction, a fearsome liberation, or both. As each of its heroines undergoes the experience of ‘balked desire,’ she enacts a version of the private two-mindedness that so often sets Rossetti’s … [characters] musing about the pursuit of what so bittersweetly pleases and eludes them,” (Hassett 16). Lizzie’s selfishness and weakness almost destroyed both their lives, whereas Laura’s selflessness and strength restored and saved them.

Full reconciliation and validation is seen in the last two lines of the poem. Here, Laura is sharing the story of what had happened to them as maids to the next generation. The binary opposition in the rhetoric of the poem allows for a validation. Evidence of this is found in line 566 with the word “if.” Laura is not stating that one will positively “totter down,” but “if.” And then, more importantly, in the final line she does not say a sister will “strengthen whilst one falters” but rather, “strengthen whilst one stands,” (emphasis added). The ability to stand implies sure-footing. Laura can now speak in these terms because the binary opposition, in the relationship between her and her sister, has now been reconciled. There is no longer a need, in their lives, for strict binary opposition because they achieved reconciliation. They have gained meaning, understanding, and knowledge. So whereas prior, when Life hung in the balance and binary opposition was negated, it now is consumed as a unified whole.

It is validated, though it does not end. Laura is aware for the next generation, the cycle of “Morning[s] and evening[s]” will continue. Through paradox, the story of Laura and Lizzie will come full circle. The notion of creating circumference through paradox is equally as relished as much for Dickinson as it is for Rossetti. Dickinson’s poem “Hope is a subtle Glutton –” parallels not only Rossetti’s theme of desire, but it beautifully reconciles binary opposition (paradox) in a circumferential manner, creating validation.

Again, like with Rossetti, the reader is forced to think on the binary definitions and implications of her word usage in the very first line. A Glutton is not one to employ subtlety. A Glutton is characteristic of excess, and drawing attention to oneself because of that excess. Subtlety, on the contrary, is unassuming or imperceptible. It operates on the ability to remain undetected, and achieve its desire through measured discipline. If not in exact opposition to each other, the two words carry enough implied opposition to create an immediate juxtaposition. Again, this will signal to the reader that an immediate paradox on Hope exists.

To personify Hope as a Glutton, who “feeds upon the Fair –” (line 2) but at the same time practices a technique of subtlety, “Abstinence” (line 4), recalls an image of “The Goblin Market” as Lizzie is clawed and cloyed by the Goblin men. She is driven to the Goblin Men out of a hope to save her sister. In so doing, she becomes her sister’s Hope. She is resolute in her “Abstinence” of eating any of the fruit, as she muses, “One may lead a horse to water,/ Twenty cannot make him drink,” (“The Goblin Market”, lines 422 – 423). But still she is a “Glutton” for having abstained. Or rather, her Hope is increased and she is hungry for more self-sacrifice – the feast upon which this particular Gluttonous Hope “feeds upon,” (P1547, line 2). “Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices/ […] Eat me, drink me, love me; / Laura, make much of me” (“The Goblin Market”, lines 468, 471 – 472).

According to Dickinson, Hope is a self-replenishing, self-sustaining need. Hope feeds those who are in the situations of most hopelessness. The very nature of Hope in society is a binary construct. When Life is peaceful, tranquil (which curiously enough is a definition of Halcyon), the need or desire for Hope is not as great. And yet, subtly, we cultivate him (I am using the male pronoun for Hope here because Dickinson does) during this Halcyon time until we reach a point when peace and tranquility have abandoned us. But aspects of Hope are characteristics of peace and tranquility. Hence, Dickinson’s paradoxical and circumferential final two lines of the poem. “And whatsoever is consumed/ The same amount remain –” .

It is physically impossible to continue feasting and not run out of food. To consume means to ingest, devour, leave nothing behind. The exact opposite of consumption is Abstinence. By consuming like a glutton and still displaying Abstinence, Hope reaches an equilibrium: “The same amount remain –”. Or, in other words, a reconciliation between the binary opposition.

The same amount of what remain? Here, the binary nature and Dickinson’s propensity for compression and deletions allows the reader to enjoy room for interpretation, and therefore there can be several sources of validation. Dickinson purposefully creates doubt – as evidences by her final Dash after “remain” – in order to propel the reader into finding an answer. For every question there is at least one answer, just as for every answer there is a question. We may not have it at the ready, but it exists, still. This is the magic and enticement of Dickinson. Whereas Rossetti presents doubt, and then quickly answers it, Dickinson allows the reader to remain in doubt and seek the answer for him or herself.

I assert, however, that her use of binary opposition and circumferential rhetoric helps the reader create a unified meaning. To use the Marxist Macherey’s words against him, indeed I do agree that, “the silences, gaps, and contradictions of the text are more revealing of its ideological determinations than are its explicit statements,” (Moi 92). In presenting the dual nature of Hope – its subtlety and gluttony, ability to consume and abstain – reader and poet are better able to define the intangible. Or, to use Macherey’s wording, the ideological.

I must disagree with him, however, when he claims that these contradictions giving insight on the ideological de-center, or create “difference rather than unity between […] meanings,” (Moi 92). The use of binary rhetoric (paradox) and circumference in the poetry of Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson displays ample evidence of how meaning in concepts are defined and validated. Without exploring and defining the contradictions of ideologies and intangibles such as Hope or Desire, then reconciliation (unity) is never achieved and validation denied. By embodying their art in symbols, Rossetti and Dickinson achieve the status of poet-prophetesses. For the role of prophet isn’t to dictate maxims, but instead, to present Truth (validation) through the universal questions and paradoxes which captivate us all.