Patience is the activity and end of Christina G. Rossetti’s poetry: patience for the time of God, for death, for the second coming, and patience with her fleeting passions. As a consequence, the volume of her output, the 800-odd pages in the Penguin Complete Poems, edited by R.W. Crump, is less surprising than it seems: patience must be repeatedly mastered and renewed; it cannot be held once and for all.
What is surprising is, first, that the poems work at all, coming to embody patience without taking it for granted, admitting into themselves the forces that would disrupt or challenge it, the weight of circumstances for which patience is required, without losing sight of their aim; and second, that the poems move to enact or enforce or entail patience in so many ways–ways that, perhaps, are already suggested by that haphazard sequence of verbs.
At random, a poem of no special significance in her body of work, but illustrative of her achievements:
“Ye that fear Him, both small and great.”
Great or small below,
Great or small above;
Be we Thine, whom Thou dost know
First or last on earth,
First or last in Heaven;
Only weighted with Thy worth,
Wise or ignorant,
Strong or weak; Amen;
Sifted now, cast down, in want:–
Then,–when sun nor moon,
Time nor death, finds place,
Seeing in the eternal noon
Then,–when tears and sighing,
Changes, sorrows, cease;
Living by Thy Life undying
Then,–when all creation
Keeps its jubilee,
Crowned amid Thy holy nation;
Crowned, discrowned, in adoration
The need for patience, and the faith that ensures it, is manifest in the single word “Then”–which might, in the hands of another pet, be “there.” But for her, heaven is a time, or an order of time, rather than a place. And her syntax conspires to announce her effect. “When…when…when…” begin the final three stanzas, and we might expect “when X happens, Y will follow or also occur,” especially since the question prompting those stanzas is the expectant “But then?”, so as to ask what will happen next, and so as to inspire, we would think, the response, “what will happen is as follows.” And Rossetti does tell us what follows, but rather than say “All creation will keep its jubilee” or “neither sun and moon will find place” or anything else projected forward in futurity, she gives us, as it were, the first half of a conditional, “When creation will keep its jubilee,” without any follow up, so that each “when” clause is asked to stand on its own. Then will be when the following happens. And what happens then stands on its own, with its own finality and perfection; there is no conditional, no follow-up or simultaneous occurrence, because what happens next will represent the end of God’s plan and be simultaneous only with itself.
That final “when” seems a space of time standing alone, perpetually open-ended, but satisfied by its own continuation; it is a bending of English grammar towards the eternal.
Because then “when” opens out towards another clause that never arrives, it pushes us towards impatience; but the poem never feels impatient, even when it asks “but then”–instead it looks forward to another time, the span of “when,” when patience and impatience are obsolete by the (paradoxically) continual duration of God’s perfection.
Rossetti here surprises our sense of what it means to be complete and sufficient grammatically, and the surprise at what is enough, what sufficient, is characteristic of her poetry, though it is felt differently from poem to poem. Often, as here, the question of sufficiency is not only a matter of time but of timing–the right time, kairos, to act or cease or yield; the acknowledgement (from her Christian perspective) that it is not ours always to know the right time.
Three pages earlier in the Complete Poems:
After midnight, in the dark
The clock strikes one,
New day has begun.
Look up and hark!
With singing heart forestall the carolling lark.
After mid-day, in the light
The clock strikes one,
Day-fall has begun.
Cast up, set right
The day’s account against the on-coming night.
After noon and night, one day
For ever one
Ends not, once begun.
O brothers and sisters? Pause and pray.
“Whither away” because the brothers and sisters run away from their duty to pray, but hopelessly so because “whither” is spatial and the poem concerns itself with the time for prayer; there is no running away from time. “Whither away” also puns: by failing to pray, they risk withering away, and her question seems to ask if they would do so willingly. The advice in either case is the same: “pause and pray.”
But that advice sits uneasily against the title: “Praying Always” (a phrase from Ephesians 6:18). There can be no praying always if prayer demands pausing; life demands more. The paradox is resolved with the final line of the first stanza: “forestall the carolling lark.” To pray is to pause time, so that within the moment of prayer, on the point of day-change, an eternity is contained, pressing back against the passage of time (similarly “against the on-coming night”).
A similar tension is felt in the poem is we set the specific times of prayer, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, against the “always” of the title. One in the morning and one in the afternoon are both, for Rossetti, limits–when morning fades to afternoon and night, when one day fades to another; that ceaseless change is a condition of life and though there can be no pausing it perpetually, no praying always in it, to pray at the crux of change is to confront the change against which the “always” of the eternal one day can be contrasted.
The underlying game is metaphysical: the moment of unity, the number and hour one, cannot be preserved and maintained and occupied in this life. We are to think, probably, of the trinity. We are also to think that “atone,” is to make someone as Geoffrey Hill has remarked in his critical writings, “at one.” There can be no full atoning and no adequate at-oning in a life of ceaseless change; nor can there be adequate pause for praying always; nor adequate prayer for a full atonement.
The right time for prayer is always; but in the absence of that possibility the right time is the hour that prefigures the unity of the world to come, when a perpetual prayer, and the continual pause of eternity, will be God’s promise realized.
In “Ye that fear Him, both small and great,” the poem turned on a close of prayer: “Amen.” After that word, the “now” and then the questioning “then,” answered by the eternal “when.”
Rossetti takes the word as the title of what is among the most beautiful of her poems–that poem, on sufficiency, timing, and patience, closed her 1862 volume, Goblin Market and Other Poems:
It is over. What is over?
Nay, how much is over truly:
Harvest days we toiled to sow for;
Now the sheaves are gathered newly,
Now the wheat is garnered duly.
It is finished. What is finished?
Much is finished known or unknown:
Lives are finished; time diminished;
Was the fallow field left unsown?
Will these buds be always unblown?
It suffices. What suffices?
All suffices reckoned rightly:
Spring shall bloom where now the ice is,
Roses make the bramble sightly,
And the quickening sun shine brightly,
And the latter wind blow lightly,
And my garden teem with spices.
The movement of verbs in the first lines expresses a development of thought: “over”–“finished”–“suffices.” With each comes a thickening of moral judgment: “over” can pertain to a storm or natural phenomenon; “finished” suggests an act was planned or intended (and it lacks the possible tones of surrender and passivity that we find in “over”); “suffices” approves and calls to an end. It is about resignation, assessment, and acceptance of a limit to time–and to all that time is in Rossetti’s poem.
That pronoun, “it,” refers to all of time and, inseparable from it, much that it contained and set in motion, and the poem is written as time itself comes to an end: “lives are finished; time diminished.”
The questions of the poem are neither doubting, nor complacently withholding of an answer, nor imposing an implicit answer on a reader; she finds another tenor to her questions entirely, sets them at a new angle to knowledge; they are questions that accept that she does not know, but that accept not-knowing.
“What is finished?”–much “known or unknown” and that width, the inclusion of the unknown, the vagueness of “much” (allowing that something still remains) does not perturb. Most surprisingly, neither do the questions that end that second stanza: “Was the fallow field left unsown? | Will these buds be always unblown?” The answer is maybe and the answer is irrelevant; she is moved to ask, but not to demand or raise a cry when no answer is forthcoming (in Rossetti’s poems, it is not impossible that God would answer; in other poems, she presents a dialogue with God and herself). Instead, she moves onto the final stanza.
The most surprising word in the stanza is “shall,” for this is a poem that, in the earlier stanzas, looks back on what is completed. “All suffices” including these things that have yet to happen. The reason, I suppose, is that Rossetti adopts a compound of double perspectives: all of time is complete from God’s point of view, whereas we live in it still; and much that any one life contains is complete always, and must be deemed enough and good enough on account of the goodness of creation, while what remains to a life is also enough and good enough, so that what will be suffices as much as what has been.
The poem is animated not by her unease but by the clash within and between these double visions of time; she, however, is accepting of both, and it is a consequence of her acceptance that she can so seamlessly balance and accommodate them.
The final surprise comes in the poem’s final line, where the garden teeming with spices is “my garden,” where her own small life is accommodated within the immensity of the “it.” It is both the garden of God’s eternity, teeming with spices, perpetually ripe, and a domestic scene, the time allotted her which she celebrates for sufficing.
We might ask whether the title of the poem ought to be uttered at its close–but this is not a prayer, and the title suggests either that to speak “Amen” is to think what this poem says, or else that to close a prayer is to put oneself in a state of mind towards God’s time and the world’s time that would allow the poem to be written.