I love Christina Rossetti’s imagery of the line “my life is in the falling leaf.” Though I’m perhaps stretching the figurative language, I can’t help imagining the sunlight of her life sucked into the leaf as it fades, shrivels, and falls. Like Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “winter world” in “To R.B.” it so perfectly captures the way we can see our inner lives mirrored in the seasons.
It comes from her poem “A Better Resurrection.” In it Rossetti transitions from the seasonal leaf motif in discussing how her life is a “winter world” to an intimate final stanza wherein the King drinks from her rather than she from the chalice. Let’s take a look:
I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numbed too much for hopes or fears.
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimmed with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.
My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall–the sap of spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.
My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perished thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.
The way the leaf motif turns to the Eucharistic motif is fascinating. In the first and second stanzas life is described as autumnal without any harvest. Winter is about to come–we’ve transitioned to “frozen thing”–But hope just burst in with the coming “sap of spring.”
And all throughout there is this tender refrain ending each stanza.
Then there is a sudden change from a seasonal to a material analogy in the final stanza. The speaker is no longer autumn fading to winter with a hope for spring, but a bowl that is broken. That lack of parallelism shouldn’t work, but it does. How is this?
A season follows a natural path. We may not know if it will rain or if our harvest will be enough, but spring should follow winter, even if late. But a broken bowl will stay a broken bowl unless acted upon. The barrenness of winter is part of the natural cycle, though painful. Its nature, its purpose is to continue through the cycle, to give a break from the sowing and harvesting. But a broken bowl cannot fulfill its purpose.
The request to Christ changes drastically here, but that is still the link that holds the figurative language together. The two previous requests are for Christ to act on her. She receives this action. He quickens her, or he rises in her. But in this one, he still acts, but in a way that receives from her. He drinks from her. This is fascinating because it makes the Eucharistic imagery of this third stanza reciprocal. She is a broken bowl, in suggested contrast to the Eucharistic chalice and the Arthurian Grail which are intact. The same Eucharist that would quicken her and lead to Christ rising in her is what she becomes. She drinks of him, and he drinks of her.
The reciprocal reception has roots in the logic of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. The scholar, John Booty, refers to it as a “mutual indwelling,” noting that “a logical sequence was thus established” leading to
the participation of the faithful, eating the bread and drinking the wine, the Body and Blood of Christ, whereby that mutual indwelling occurs, a participation in his sacrificial life and death, for which the only appropriate response is self-offering with thanksgiving.
The transition from “O Jesus, quicken me” to “drink of me” poetically illustrates that reciprocal movement found in the liturgy she experienced.
Rossetti links her thought to the liturgical cycles of the Anglican calendar so thoroughly that she has been incorporated into its contemporary usage not only as a writer of nativity hymns, but also as a poetic saint celebrated in April with her own collect.
I was delighted to see so many poetic heroes like Rossetti and Donne included in the Anglican calendar. I thought we would end with Rossetti’s collect and then maybe return to a few others as their special days come up. A collect is a liturgical prayer that follows a set structure, like a poetic form, and is designed to begin a service. The structure tends to begin with an invocation to the divine, followed by a clause concerning a divine attribute or promise. The attribute or promise tends to be looking backward through the shared memory of the religious group. Then the petition comes, usually based in the trust of the past promise or divine attribute. The purpose of the petition then comes signaled by a transitional phrase like “so that” or “ut” in Latin texts. Then finally there is a concluding praise of the divine called a doxology.
And here’s the special collect for Rossetti:
O God, whom heaven cannot hold, you inspired Christina Rossetti to express the mystery of the Incarnation through her poems: Help us to follow her example in giving our hearts to Christ, who is love; and who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
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