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A Short Analysis of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Twice’

A summary of an underappreciated Rossetti poem

‘Twice’ is not one of Christina Rossetti’s most famous poems, but it deserves to be better known. Its songlike quality shows up its kinship with many of Rossetti’s more celebrated poems, and its emotional power is as great as ‘A Birthday’ or ‘Remember’. Written in 1864 and published in Rossetti’s second collection, The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems in 1866, ‘Twice’ takes as its theme the fallen women who is wronged by a man.

I took my heart in my hand
(O my love, O my love),
I said: Let me fall or stand,
Let me live or die,
But this once hear me speak—
(O my love, O my love)—
Yet a woman’s words are weak;
You should speak, not I.

You took my heart in your hand
With a friendly smile,
With a critical eye you scanned,
Then set it down,
And said: It is still unripe,
Better wait awhile;
Wait while the skylarks pipe,
Till the corn grows brown.

As you set it down it broke—
Broke, but I did not wince;
I smiled at the speech you spoke,
At your judgement that I heard:
But I have not often smiled
Since then, nor questioned since,
Nor cared for corn-flowers wild,
Nor sung with the singing bird.

I take my heart in my hand,
O my God, O my God,
My broken heart in my hand:
Thou hast seen, judge Thou.
My hope was written on sand,
O my God, O my God;
Now let Thy judgement stand—
Yea, judge me now.

This contemned of a man,
This marred one heedless day,
This heart take Thou to scan
Both within and without:
Refine with fire its gold,
Purge Thou its dross away—
Yea, hold it in Thy hold,
Whence none can pluck it out.

I take my heart in my hand—
I shall not die, but live—
Before Thy face I stand;
I, for Thou callest such:
All that I have I bring,
All that I am I give,
Smile Thou and I shall sing,
But shall not question much.

We’ll begin with a brief summary of ‘Twice’ before we move on to analyse the poem. The poem’s speaker tells us she took her heart in her hand, suggesting that she is embarking upon a daring emotional act. Sure enough, she gives herself to her lover, commanding him to let her stand or fall, live or die – she will do as he commands. He takes her heart in his hand, suggesting (though not explicitly stating) that he takes her to his bed, but then tells her she’s not ready for love, commanding her to wait until skylarks sing and the corn ripens. (This transgression is suggested by the speaker’s later description of herself as ‘marred one heedless day’ – where ‘marred’ is tauntingly close to, but is Christina Rossetti 2not, ‘married’.) In rejecting her like this, her beloved broke her heart, and virtually all pleasure and joy vanished from her life. What’s more, the cornflowers have grown and the larks sing, but her lover has not returned. She’s now a fallen woman, used and then cast aside by her male lover.

The speaker takes her (broken) heart in her hand again, and this time presents it to God (hence the title of the poem, since she presents her heart twice). Much as with her beloved, the speaker tells God to do with her as he sees fit, and judge her according to what she deserves. As she’s a fallen woman and a ‘sinner’ in the eyes of the Church, all she can do is ask for his forgiveness. She asks God to take her broken and ‘marred’ heart and purge it of its ‘dross’ with fire and restore the ‘gold’ or goodness in it. The final stanza suggests that God has accepted the speaker’s heart and mended it, for she declares, ‘I shall not die, but live’. She pledges everything she has, and everything she is, to God, and promises not to question … much.

So much for a summary of the poem. How should we interpret ‘Twice’? The suggestion of the poem is that the speaker is a fallen woman who has slept with her lover, who then discards her. Bereft of his support and love, the speaker begs God to judge her, and he forgives her, so she becomes a changed woman. Redemption and salvation, not condemnation and death, are to be her fate.

Being a woman in Victorian Britain meant that you were doubly judged: by both men and by God. The speaker of Rossetti’s ‘Twice’ is aware of this: as she remarks in the first stanza, ‘a woman’s words are weak’. Women, not just their words, were considered weak, the ‘weaker sex’, in needs of men’s superior strength and judgment to keep them on the right path. But there’s obviously a problem with such a binary view of gender roles and abilities, and the Victorians knew it too. What if the man is a cruel cad who mistreats the woman? This theme is everywhere in Victorian fiction – see Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth for a particularly forthright example – but Christina Rossetti addressed it in her poetry.

The Church looked down on sex outside of marriage and fallen women, although often helped, were figures to be pitied and their immortal souls, according to the Christian teaching, were in peril. But women were also judged by the men in their lives: fathers, husbands, brothers, lovers. Christina Rossetti points up this double-judgment – twice – by having the speaker say, of the lover that wrongs her, ‘I smiled … / At your judgment’. Then, when she stands before God, the woman asks of him, ‘let Thy judgment stand – / Yea, judge me now.’

‘Twice’ is a fine Christina Rossetti poem which gives voice to a fallen woman – like ‘Shut Out’, the poem is about a female outcast. And although Rossetti’s speaker may observe that ‘a woman’s words are weak’, the words of Christina Rossetti’s poem are certainly not.

Discover more about Christina Rossetti’s life in our short biography.

Image: Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Wikimedia Commons.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on October 4, 2016, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on MorgEn Bailey – Creative Writing Guru and commented:
    Something for you post-weekend poetry lovers…

  2. There are types of poems who belong to the timeless piece of massive readership
    and publication…………

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