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.
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.