By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘From Sunset to Star Rise’ is not one of the best-known poems by Christina Rossetti (1830-94), but it’s a real gem of a poem. Here is the poem, followed by a few words of analysis.
From Sunset to Star Rise
Go from me, summer friends, and tarry not:
I am no summer friend, but wintry cold,
A silly sheep benighted from the fold,
A sluggard with a thorn-choked garden plot.
Take counsel, sever from my lot your lot,
Dwell in your pleasant places, hoard your gold;
Lest you with me should shiver on the wold,
Athirst and hungering on a barren spot.
For I have hedged me with a thorny hedge,
I live alone, I look to die alone:
Yet sometimes, when a wind sighs through the sedge,
Ghosts of my buried years, and friends come back,
My heart goes sighing after swallows flown
On sometime summer’s unreturning track.
‘From Sunset to Star Rise’ is a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet, rhymed abbabbacdcede. Rossetti wrote many sonnets, including the classic ‘Remember’ (written when she was still a teenager), and mastered the form from a young age. Spoken by a woman who has chosen to ostracise herself from society and her friends – perhaps, as some critics have suggested, because she is a fallen woman – ‘From Sunset to Star Rise’ uses autumnal imagery and the disappearing summer to reflect on fallenness and sin as part of human nature.
‘On sometime summer’s unreturning track’ is one of Rossetti’s finest closing lines, even though it closes a poem that is not one of her finest, or best-known. It sounds a wonderfully wistful note, capturing the sense of falling away that we see in much of Christina Rossetti’s poetry: ‘sometime summer’ is neatly alliterative, while ‘unreturning’, almost proto-Hardyesque in its use of the ‘un-’ prefix, is a masterstroke of assonance, picking up the flat ‘u’ of the previous two words before turning it in a different direction with that very word, ‘unreturning’.
And the mention of those swallows recalls Keats’s closing lines from his autumn poem – the ode ‘To Autumn’ – with the image of swallows flying south for the winter with the onset of autumn.
For more information, we recommend our short and interesting biography of Christina Rossetti.
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.