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Monday, 31 December 2012

“Go, Rest, Old Year! Thy Life is Ending…” Or: Happy New Year!

As 2013 beckons, I have selected a New Year’s poem with which to say not only a happy New Year to all, but also a monster thank-you to everyone who has read anything I’ve written this year; I remove my bowler hat and bow in humble thanks to you all, for without readers, I would not bother to clutter the internet by writing these pages.

And now, selected from the Leisure Hour New Year 1877 number, an anonymous poem with which to sweep away the old year and usher in the new:

Ah me! Ah me! The Year is dying;
When first he came in joyous state,
On youth and hope and strength relying,
We formed a hundred projects great, resolved and planned; but Time was flying,
And winter winds surprised us, sighing - 
"Too late! Too late!"

What lofty schemes employed our leisure,
The glad New Year should these unfold;
But Spring was surely made for pleasure,
And Summer's tale was quickly told;
Then Autumn filled his horned measure,
But while we revelled in his treasures
The Year grew old.

Oh, Spring, too soon thy zenith gaining,
Oh, Summer, of thy beauty shorn,
Oh, Autumn, for brief season reigning,
What fruit, what harvest, have ye borne?
The Year is grey, the Year is waning,
Few be the wintry hours remaining,
And we must mourn.

What, mourn when Christmas songs are sending
Their sweetest echoes o'er the earth?
What, mourn when rich and poor attending,
So gaily wait the New Year's birth?
Aye! Then must joy and sorrow blending
With retrospection, still be lending
Soft tinge to mirth.

So must we look, with gracious glances.
On deeds that rise to our distress;
So must we think of wasted chances,
For heavenly gain we did posses;
Of misspent hours, of foolish fancies,
Of broken vows, and small advances
In holiness.

Oh, it is well to pause and ponder - 
Shall every year thus lightly go?
Shall it be only ours to squander?
No, by the grace of heaven, no!
See, the dim future stretcheth yonder,
And thither, prayerless, shall we wander?
Not so, not so.

Go, rest, Old Year! Thy life is ending;
Thy strength is gone, thy glory fled.
Go, rest! While God our way defending,
We the new path before us tread.
Hark! As we listen, meekly bending,
The midnight bells proclaim, ascending.
The Year is dead.
                                            - Leisure Hour, New Year, 1877

Wishing everyone a prosperous, successful, and above all a happy new year!

Friday, 28 December 2012

”Streets of Dazzling Whiteness, Carpeted in Snow…” Or: A Post-Christmas Poem:

I hope everyone enjoyed Christmas day and have had a super festive period! I return with another Christmas poem which is again a rather downbeat and melancholy affair, but nevertheless beautiful and evocative. The image painted by the writer is quite vivid here:

A Contrast
By E.M. Maizey

Halls of costly brightness,
Splendour, pomp, and show
Streets of dazzling whiteness,
Carpeted in snow;
Petted lap-dogs sleeping,
Couched at beauty's feet;
Human beings weeping,
Houseless in the street.

Fires brightly blazing,
Couches made to bear
Forms of dainty moulding - 
Hearts that know no care;
Roofless sheds containing
Creatures stamped with woe -
Wearied with complaining
Dying as they go.

Happy children treading
Carpet-covered floors;
Wretched young ones shedding
Tears at workhouse doors;
Parents, some! too wealthy
For the charge they bear;
Some! Oh, God! sustain them,
Crushed by grief and care.
                                      - People's & Howitt's Journal, 1850    

I will be back with one final piece of Victorian poetry on New Years day, but in the meantime, enjoy the remainder of the season! 

Thursday, 20 December 2012

“My Christmas Fare a Scanty Meal of Dry and Stone-Like Bread…” Or Another Victorian Christmas Poem

One thing that always strikes me about Victorian Christmas poetry is the downcast and melancholy nature of it. Perhaps it’s just the particular efforts I have in my collection, but its quite rare that I come across happy and jolly Christmas poems, and this is no exception. The vivid imagery, though, is absolutely wonderful, and more than makes up for the gloomy subject. Maybe the Victorian poets liked to temper the festivities of the season by highlighting the predicaments of the less fortunate with their poetry? Who knows? But here is this weeks festive tear-jerker:

The Sempstresses Christmas Song
By Thomas Russell

Here's Christmas, but no holly-boughs on these lone walls are hung,
A gala time - but rind this hearth no carol rhymes are sung;

No merry greeting grateful comes to my neglected ear,
No footfall on the stair to tell of lov'd ones drawing near!

I'll deck my Robin's cage to day afresh with groundsel bloom,
He'll warble his accustom'd note until the shadows loom;
The busy needle while I ply, and gather thread on thread,
My "Christmas fare" a scanty meal of dry and stone-like bread.

The golden days of infancy, when berries red and white
were mingled on our walls at home, I'll dream of them at night;
I'll fancy that these icy limbs are frolicking again,
As then they gambolled, though I know the fancy will be vain.

The holly and the mistletoe, ah! What are they to me?
To see them waste their greenness here, a mockery would be;
Enough to know the freshness of my heart hath passed away,
It needs no forest-gathered things to tell me that today!

I've opened my casement window, that the warbling of my bird 
May mingle with the joyous strains that in the streets are heard;
And the pealing notes of countless chimes come softly stealing in,
As if to woo my darkened thoughts to gladness back again.

The laugh of merry childhood comes mingling with their strain,
Enough! I cannot hear that sound, I'll shut it out again;
It brings the tear-drop in mine eye, retards my feeble hand,
There, Robin, sing to only me thy carol soft and bland.
                          - People's and Howitt's Journal, 1850

This is to be my last post before Christmas day, so may I wish all readers a happy and joyous Christmas day, and here’s hoping Father Christmas brings you all that you desire!
'The Poor Sempstress' by Richard Redgrave, 1843

Thursday, 13 December 2012

“What Can I give Him, Poor as I am?” Or: Christina Rossetti & Our First Christmas Poem for 2012:

Christmas is almost upon us again, and I find myself in the familiar place of bringing you little-known Victorian Christmas poetry as has become my custom here for the last couple of years. However, for my first Christmas poem this year (last week’s was only a poem about winter) I have decided to opt for a piece of poetry by someone famous.

My usual source for Christmas poetry is Victorian periodicals, which published poems by members of the public, aspiring writers and little-known published writers alike. I must reiterate here that I am not into poetry, but I can appreciate a simple poem, and I find something a little more sincere and interesting about poetry written by non-famous Victorians.

That said, I have chosen to usher in the Christmas season this year with quite a famous poem by quite a famous Victorian poet.

Born in London in 1830, Christina Rossetti was, as you may have guessed, if you don’t already know, the sister of the great pre-Raphelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as well as of the writer and founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood William Michael Rossetti and author Maria Francesca Rossetti. She was the youngest child in this great artistic family; and as well as her talented siblings, her father was an Italian poet, and her mother, whilst not herself of an artistic bent, was the sister of John William Polidori – the author of one of the first English vampire stories, The Vampyre, in 1819.

Christina, growing up in a household overflowing with artistic ideas, soon began to show promise as a poet. By the age of twelve she had written a book of poetry, and by eighteen she had published her first two poems (Death’s Chill Between and Heart’s Chill Between) in the literary magazine Athenaeum. Many of her early poems focused on death and loss and were somewhat melancholy. When she was nineteen Christina began contributing poems to the (ultimately unsuccessful) Pre-Raphaelite journal The Germ, under the pseudonym Ellen Alleyn.

Christina Rossetti by Dante Rossetti, 1866
Goblin Market and Other Poems – by far her most famous collection – was first published in 1862, when Christina was thirty-one. This was her first work widely available to the public and proved to be very successful, receiving critical acclaim from, not only the press, but eminent and popular poets of the day, including Tennyson. In the year prior to the release of Goblin Market the great female poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning had died in Italy, leaving her place as Britain’s premier female poet vacant. The success of Goblin Market and Other Poems saw Christina take on that mantle, becoming the most popular female poet in the country, although she never quite reached the same heights of fame and popularity as Browning.

Christina sat as a model for her brother, Dante, for some of his best known paintings, including his first oil painting The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, for which, at the age of eighteen, she was the model for the Virgin Mary. This painting was was the first instance of a piece of work bearing the initials ‘PRB’, which signified the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood.

In the paintings it is quite plain to see that she was a handsome woman; despite this, as well as her great talent, Christina never married. She was engaged to James Collinson, a painter and founding member of the pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, but his converting back to Catholicism following a crisis of conscience (having reverted to Anglicanism in order to marry Christina) caused staunch Anglican Christina to end the relationship in 1850. She also turned down the hand of Charles Cayley – the linguist best known for his translations of the work of Dante Alighieri – on religious grounds, and also the offer of painter and agnostic John Brett.
'The Girlhood of Mary Virgin' by Dante Rossetti, 1848
From 1859 until 1870 she volunteered at the St Mary Magdelene House of Charity in Highgate, which was a refuge for former prostitutes. Her experiences here with the fallen women lead many to believe the idea for her poem Goblin Market – the protagonists of which are two sisters, and there being a distinct undercurrent of sexual imagery throughout – to have been born there.

In the early 1870’s Christina was diagnosed with Graves’ disease, a thyroid disorder that includes insomnia, palpitations and hair and weight loss amongst a long list of possible symptoms. By the 1880’s the bouts of the disease had become so severe that she was made an invalid, but she continued to write. The following decade saw further health complications when, in 1893 she developed breast cancer. The tumour was removed, but returned in September 1894. Three months later she died in London.

Christina is buried in the Rossetti family plot in Highgate Cemetery West.

In the Bleak Midwinter by Christina Rossetti, c. 1872

Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

Christina never achieved the heady heights of success – in life or after – that her brother Dante did, but she did leave behind a body of work, which, unlike a lot of nineteenth century poetry, is quite accessible and enjoyable to read, particularly the fairy-tale-esque Goblin Market.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Pre Raphaelites, or seeing their work, the Tate is currently running an exhibition entitled ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde’ but hurry, the exhibition ends on 13th January! See details here:

Friday, 7 December 2012

“The Touches of Winter are Round us; and Weather yet Wilder Draws Nigh…” Or: a Winter Poem:

It has become somewhat customary here to usher in Christmas with some Victorian festive poetry, and this year will be no different. There’s something about nineteenth century winter and Christmas-themed poems that really evoke – to me, anyway – the spirit of past Christmasses; and by that I don’t mean Victorian Christmas necessarily, but even festive periods as early as twenty or thirty years ago, when, to me, Christmas seemed a little more simple than it does now.

Perhaps it was just where I was living at the time, or maybe (more likely) that I was a child, but I’m sure there were more carol singers, snowy days and a shorter build-up to Christmas than now; but maybe I look upon the past with rosy spectacles.

Today’s poem is not one about Christmas, but rather, now that there is a chill upon the air and we’ve had a little snowfall here in Britain this week, one about winter.

If you find modern-day Christmas a little bit of a blur, then I hope you’ll enjoy the simple spirit of the poems featured here over the next couple of weeks.
'London in Winter' by William Walcot, 1909 
Here’s this year’s first:

An Old Body's Winter Song.

The touches of Winter are round us;
He is busy with wind and with rain,
The leaves are all swept from the branches,
The pools are brimful in the lane.
How sombre the noontide! how sullen
The lowlands, where snowflakes fly fast!
How plaintive the notes of the robin!
For Winter has reached us at last.

The touches of Winter are on us;
Our cheeks waning pallid and thin,
Our eyes fading slowly in colour,
Bespeak some sure fading within.
But if mind has grown larger and purer,
Its thoughts and its aims all more clear,
Its perceptions of truth all corrected,
We care not tho' Winter is here.

The touches of Winter are on us;
Our hands are now feeble and slow,
Our feet totter round the small garden -
Are chilly beside the hearth glow.
But if in the long past behind us
Our words and our works have been great
In number and kind, and refreshing,
We welcome our winter estate.

The touches of Winter are on us;
How dull beats the heart in the breast!
The breath comes and goes in long pauses,
We are fond of our room and our rest.
But if the soul's hope has been garnered,
The will trained to strike passion dumb,
Tho' bruises and blood linger on us,
We are thankful our winter has come.

The touches of Winter are round us;
And weather yet wilder draws nigh,
Stormy days with their weltering cloud rack,
Frigid nights with no star in the sky.
But if in the world beyond this world
Springs life free from cold or decay,
Oh, Winter, you herald His working
Whose will is as right as His way.
                                                              - Alfred Norris, from Leisure Hour, 1877

More festive poetry next week, and if you’ve enjoyed this, click on the ‘poetry’ label in the ‘looking for something specific?’ list of words on the right more.