Introduction to the Poet:
Christina Georgina Rossetti (5 December 1830 – 29 December 1894) was an English poet who wrote a variety of romantic, devotional, and children’s poems.
Of all Victorian women poets, posterity has been kindest to Christina Rossetti. Her poetry has never disappeared from view, and her reputation, though it suffered a decline in the first half of the twentieth century, has always been preserved to some degree. Critical interest in Rossetti’s poetry swelled in the final decades of the twentieth century, a resurgence largely impelled by the emergence of feminist criticism; much of this commentary focuses on gender issues in her poetry and on Rossetti as a woman poet. In Rossetti’s lifetime opinion was divided over whether she or Elizabeth Barrett Browning was the greatest female poet of the era; in any case, after Browning’s death in 1861 readers and critics saw Rossetti as the older poet’s rightful successor.
Christina Rossetti was born in Charlotte Street (now 105 Hallam Street), London, to Gabriele Rossetti, a poet and a political exile from Vasto, Abruzzo, and Frances Polidori, the sister of Lord Byron‘s friend and physician, John William Polidori. She had two brothers and a sister: Dante Gabriel became an influential artist and poet, and William Michael and Maria both became writers. Christina, the youngest, was a lively child. She dictated her first story to her mother before she had learned to write.
Rossetti was educated at home by her mother and father, who had her study religious works, classics, fairy tales and novels. Rossetti delighted in the works of Keats, Scott, Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis. The influence of the work of Dante Alighieri, Petrarch and other Italian writers filled the home and would have a deep impact on Rossetti’s later writing. Their home was open to visiting Italian scholars, artists and revolutionaries. The family homes in Bloomsbury at 38 and later 50 Charlotte Street were within easy reach of Madam Tussauds, London Zoo and the newly opened Regent’s Park, which she visited regularly; in contrast to her parents, Rossetti was very much a London child, and, it seems, a happy one.
In the later decades of her life, Rossetti suffered from Graves’ Disease, diagnosed in 1872 suffering a nearly fatal attack in the early 1870s. In 1893, she developed breast cancer and though a tumour was removed, she suffered a recurrence in September 1894. She died in Bloomsbury on 29 December 1894 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery.
The poem is an allegorical reference to the poetess’s life and her devotion to Christ. The poem also reflects on the late life realisations that dawn upon one. The poem, with its allegorical meaning, and wonderful diction is a marvellous piece by Rosetti.
The Setting of If Only:
The poem is set in the era where the poetess is a staunch Christian believing in the power and aura of Christ and completely devoted to him. However, she is also aware that the Almighty might abandon her or bid her goodbye.
It is set when the poetess has reached the end of her blossoming life, that is her youth has already passed by.
Poetic Devices in If Only:
“While autumn grips me with its fingers want
And frets me with its fitful windy sigh.
When autumn passes then must winter numb,
And winter may not pass a weary while,
But when it passes spring shall flower again;”
This is a wonderful imagery itself giving the readers an image of the cold winter and the blooming spring, with the autumn. The serene picture is embedded in our mind.
Summary of If Only:
“If I might only love my God and die!
But now He bids me love Him and live on,”
The poetess tries to convey her love for the almighty. She wishes she could have loved the almighty forever and had been dead, but now it seems to her that the almighty is bidding her a farewell: yet she would love him and live throughout.
“Now when the bloom of all my life is gone,
The pleasant half of life has quite gone by.
My tree of hope is lopped that spread so high,”
The bloom of her life, that is her youth has gone by and the pleasant half, that is the youth and blooming days of her, life is over now, after speculations: she has nothing else in left. All expectations, all hope has gone by and the tree of hope is lopped, which was once spread high.
Later, she goes on to talk about the various season, allegorically referring to the various stages of her life and the truth of her life. She goes on to say:
“When autumn passes then must winter numb,
And winter may not pass a weary while,
But when it passes spring shall flower again,
And in that spring who weepeth now shall smile,
Yea, they shall wax who now is on the wane,”
During the autumn, the winter does not affect us with its chilly ambience and when winter passes it goes in a swift flow. On the other hand, when the winter passes by and spring approaches, the flowers start to bloom. Further, she goes on to emphasises on the truth of life.
The seasons change the feeling changes and the situations in life changes. During the spring, the person who had cried will smile now and the one who had gone up in the ladder of life would come down eventually, also.
Lastly, she concludes her poem by saying, in spite of all these, she would always devote to the almighty, and everybody shall sing out of love when Christ arrives.
She also means, on the arrival of Christ, the world would love and be loved irrespective of the time, the season and time. Thus her eternal love for Christ is magnified in the line:
“Yea, they shall sing for love when Christ shall come.”
Critical Analysis of If Only:
The poem deals with the devotion of the poetess for the Almighty, Christ. Rosetti portrays a wonderful scenario of the depth of feeling that she had felt after half of her life had passed. The poem is intricately built up on a theme of love and devotion for Almighty.
Rosetti, with her wonderfully woven words, portrays the feelings of a devotee. From the beginning of the poem, she says, even if she is abandoned by the God, she would continue loving him, and is ready to die to love him However, she goes on to say that the blooming half of her life is gone and she further explains how her life was allegorically similar to the various season. She also tries to say that God is even to all. With the passing of time, the situations and circumstances improve and one rejoices with the appearance of Christ.
Central Theme of If Only:
The central theme deals with devotion and love of a devotee for Christ. With the age, she has come to realise the significance of almighty. She goes on to say that even on her death, she would love Christ and devote to him. Irrespective of the time and season, she would devote to him and love him.
The other theme that the poem deals with is one of that of the power of almighty. As she describes how her life has been associated with various seasons, she also portrays the cycle of life that bars no one. She tries to mean that the almighty is just to all, the one facing sorrow will face happiness, soon and the one going up the ladder will come down, too.
The tone of If Only:
The tone is one of devotion combined with melancholy. The poet shows devotion throughout the poem, through her actions and her sayings that the almighty is great and just. However, she also says that even if Christ abandons her, she will love him, nevertheless. Lastly, a sense of melancholy associated with dying is also present.
However, the poem ends with a sense of hope saying that the appearance of Christ will make everybody rejoice with love and happiness.
Contributor: Bidisha Das