A summary of an underappreciated Rossetti poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘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 not, ‘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.
About Christina Rossetti
Christina Rossetti (1830-94) was one of the Victorian era’s greatest and most influential poets. She was the younger sister (by two years) of the Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Christina Rossetti was born in London in 1830, and lived with her mother virtually all of her life. She never married. Many of her poems engage with the question of religious belief, such as ‘Good Friday’ (a poem about honest religious doubt as much as faith) and ‘Twice’, about the importance of Christian forgiveness and redemption (the poem is spoken by a fallen woman, a theme that can also be seen in ‘Goblin Market’).
Christina Rossetti composed her first poem while still a very young girl; she dictated it to her mother. It ran simply: ‘Cecilia never went to school / Without her gladiator.’ Goblin Market and Other Poems was the first collection of her poetry to be published, and it was the book that brought her to public attention. The title poem is a long narrative poem which is often taken for a children’s poem because of its fairy-tale motifs and imagery; Rossetti, however, always denied that the poem was intended for children. Several of the poems in the volume, such as ‘Remember’ and ‘When I am dead, my dearest’, were composed before she had turned twenty.
Rossetti’s influences were as diverse as the many poetic forms in which she wrote: sonnets, ballads, narrative poems, lyrics, even Christmas carols (‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ to name but the most famous). She was remarkably prolific: the Penguin edition of her Complete Poems runs to well over 1,000 pages and is a treasure-trove for the poetry-lover.
Rossetti died in 1894 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery where fellow Victorian writer George Eliot had earlier been laid to rest. She went on to influence a range of later poets, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ford Madox Ford, and Elizabeth Jennings. Philip Larkin was an admirer, praising her ‘steely stoicism’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Wikimedia Commons.