A summary of a Rossetti poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Good Friday’ was published in Christina Rossetti’s 1866 collection The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems. The poem is about Rossetti’s struggle to feel close to Christ and the teachings of Christianity, and to weep for the sacrifice he made. Below we offer a short summary and analysis of ‘Good Friday’, focusing on its language and meaning.
Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?
Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter, weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;
Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon –
I, only I.
Yet give not o’er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.
We’ll begin with a brief summary of ‘Good Friday’. Rossetti regrets the fact that when she stands and looks up at a depiction of Jesus Christ being crucified, the sight does not move her to tears, unlike the women revered in the Christian tradition who mourned Christ’s death, and Saint Peter, one of Christ’s Apostles, who wept ‘bitterly’ over Jesus’ sacrifice. Even one of the two thieves – between whom Jesus was executed – was moved by his sacrifice.
Even the sun and the moon seem to have been affected by the Crucifixion, since they both disappeared from view as if in mourning, and the sky turned dark, when Jesus died. (The sky went dark, even at midday.) No, Rossetti says, it is only she who is not moved by it – but she wishes she were. Rossetti thus concludes ‘Good Friday’ by entreating Jesus Christ to continue to try to reach her with the power of his sacrifice, likening him to a shepherd who needs to find her, one of his lost sheep.
Rossetti ends by alluding to the story of Moses, the Old Testament figure who led the Jews out of Egypt and to Israel. According to the Book of Numbers, ‘Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also’ (20:11). Since Christ is greater than Moses, Rossetti argues, if he smites (i.e. strikes) a rock, it will be of such power that Rossetti will be converted and overcome by the power of Christianity.
What does Rossetti’s poem ‘Good Friday’ mean? Even though Rossetti knows Christianity inside out (she tells Christ she can ‘number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss’), knowing about something doesn’t automatically lead to feeling its power. She has gazed on the sight of Jesus on the Cross many times, but looking at it, and knowing its significance, doesn’t automatically inspire tears.
Rossetti begins ‘Good Friday’ with a suggestion that is hard, cold, and immovable: unlike a ‘sheep’ which will follow God as part of his flock, she is a ‘stone’ – the implication being that her heart is as hard and unmoved as stone. The ‘stone’ image with which Christina Rossetti begins ‘Good Friday’ reverberates throughout the poem, like a pebble skimming across the surface of a lake: it resurfaces first in ‘Peter’, one of Christ’s Apostles who was so named by Jesus (his original name was actually Simon) because he was going to be the ‘rock’ on which Jesus built his church (Peter is from the Greek petros, ‘rock’, from which we also get ‘petroleum’).
Then it returns in that final line and the violent command, ‘smite a rock.’ Just as Moses striking the rock in the Old Testament gave water and therefore life to his people, so Christ smiting the rock will nourish and inspire Rossetti’s deeper belief in Christianity.
‘Good Friday’ puts us in mind of another Victorian poem, not by Christina Rossetti but by Tennyson, named In Memoriam, of which T. S. Eliot once observed: ‘Its faith is a poor thing, but its doubt is a very intense experience.’ We might analyse Rossetti’s ‘Good Friday’ in such terms: it’s a great Victorian religious poem not because of its out-and-out praise of God, but because it offers a more complex and nuanced take on religious faith.
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’.
Discover more about Rossetti with our short overview of her life, our analysis of her classic poem Goblin Market, our summary of her underrated poem ‘Twice’, and our thoughts on her poem about being ‘shut out’.
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: Portrait of Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1866), public domain.