I'm thrilled to be attending INCS 2016 later this week, in Asheville, NC, and since I've at last uploaded my paper I wanted to share an outtake or two in anticipation of the discussion in Session 8D, "Forms of Time: Presentism & C19 Literary Forms." My paper is called "After Death: Christina Rossetti's Timescales of Catastrophe," and if you're heading to INCS you can download it here. (If you're not, and you want it, let me know -- I'd be delighted to share.) I won't rehearse here the entire argument of the paper, which anyway is speculative and marks only a preliminary foray into what I hope will become a more sustained investigation of how Rossetti imagined the ending of worlds.
By way of advertisement, though, I thought it would be fun to sketch out this idea of what I call Rossetti's necropoetics by way of a few of Rossetti's amazing short lyrics from Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872, 1893). It's well known that across her writing, Rossetti evinces a fascination with nonhuman nature; this concern with the created world is legible in, for example, her flower-catalogs, her poems about the passage of seasons (e.g "A Summer Wish"), her descriptions of plants, and in her careful analyses of weather phenomena. All of these unfold in Rossetti's characteristic evangelical idiom, but manage to be both metaphysicalizing and concretely observational at once, such that nonhuman world is both a symbol of something else and always only itself. (This commitment to the material particularity of nonhuman life is also clear in her oddly numerous poems about pets.)
But the weird thing about Rossetti's nature poetry is how insistently it turns on death. I read somewhere that Sing-Song would have been more successful as a children's book if it had featured less infanticide, and it's true that for a kid's book there is much dying. In "Hear what the mournful linnets say," for example, those melancholy birds lament the destruction of their nest by "cruel boys":
Like so many other of her poems, the injury to the world is here unexplained (it derives from "cruelty") and unconsoled. We can only "watch the ruin they have made," because this loss is "[t]oo late" to be healed by "build[ing]"; it is even, she says in a performative contradiction, "too sad to sing."
This sense of the precarity of the world structures Rossetti's dark nature poetry: "There is no life like Spring-life born to die," she writes in "Spring" (31). But it also informs her ongoing interest in the actual end of the world, as expressed in her poems about that topic but also (at more length) in devotional prose works like The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on the Apocalypse (1892).
My point, in the INCS paper, is to ask how Rossetti’s animal poems, apocalyptic writings, and so-called “death lyrics” -- those poems narrated, like "After Death," by disembodied speakers from beyond the grave-- might help us see how this formally inventive female poet, long cast as a religious scold and anti-secular mystic, drew on the capacities of her medium to imagine how worlds die.
This apocalyptic outcome, I try to suggest, she imagines at both human and nonhuman scales, a doubleness evident in a haunting short poem like "Why did baby die," also from Sing-Song. (I reproduce below CR's manuscript page from the British Library.) "Why did baby die" is a tiny, brutally simple poem that meets a child's imagined questions about mortality -- why did the baby die?-- with mute indifference. The picture it paints cannot be consoling, since it tells of a natural world inclined pitilessly and without explanation towards disaster:
Why did baby die
Making father sigh,
Flowers that bloom to die
Make no reply
But bow and die. ("Why did baby die," 1-6)
In the longer paper I'm interested in how this thanophilic poetics -- pointed always toward death, and positing little in the way of consolation for the human survivors-- gets expressed at scales beyond individual dead birds or even dead babies. In "Time Lengthening," a poem I didn't have space for in my INCS paper, catastrophe ends temporality itself:
Time lengthening, in the lengthening seemeth long;
But ended Time will seem a little space,
A little while from morn to evensong,
A little while that ran a rapid race,
A little while, when once Eternity
Denies proportion to the other’s pace. ("Time Lengthening" 1-6)
In these cryptic and repetitive lines, Rossetti imagines an apocalypse in the language of magnitude: in the event of final Judgment human time will seem to be infinitely extended, but this apparent extension of temporality is collapsed into almost nothing, a tiny duration or “little while” that is "denied proportion" and transformed into another dimension entirely. “[E]nded Time,” she says, “will seem a little space.” In Rossetti's hands, the cosmic durations of eschatological renovation -- the temporality of the end of the world -- transforms all other deaths into tiny dress rehearsals for the big one.
My hunch is that all this might help recommend Rossetti to us as poet of the late Anthropocene, when all of created nature veers toward death and without consolation we must somehow endure.
Nathan K. Hensley
Here's where I'll paste fragments of readings, ideas, and questions.