Christina Rossetti’s May

Here’s a piece using a Christina Rossetti poem “May,”  that’s both simple and spare and mysterious and broad. Early in this project I presented several of Rossetti’s poems, most of which were new to me, because her short, lyrical poems delighted me with their avoidance of the cruft her English Victorian contemporaries often fall into. Nothing’s universally wrong with elaborate poems, but to my tastes, sparer poems can offer us guidance to pay attention, real attention,  to what remains.

Here’s the text of her short poem. The stuff in curly brackets are variations I found in a short search through versions online.

I cannot tell you how it was; {,}
But this I know: it came to pass
Upon a bright and sunny {breezy} day
When May was young: ah, pleasant May!
As yet the poppies were not born
Between the blades of tender corn;
The last egg {eggs} had not hatched as yet,
Nor any bird forgone its mate.

I cannot tell you what it was; {,}
But this I know: it did but pass.
It passed away with sunny May,
Like {With} all sweet things it passed away,
And left me old, and cold, and grey.

These variations are from tiny to small. A semicolon or a comma? Can anyone make any difference from that? “Sunny” or “breezy?” I prefer sunny, breezy is more active, since this is a poem that works its magic by giving us a still moment, and then showing us it’s not. And if sunny, then “sunny” is nicely repeated in the 11th line, when this short poem begins to refrain with itself. “Egg” or “Eggs?” Close call there. Egg lets us see a singular egg (it’s usually easier to invoke a single thing vividly rather than a multitude), but “eggs” make the point that this is an entire reproductive process. “Like” or “With?” I like “like.” “With” followed by that “all” has a sense of this being an immediate entirety. “Like” allows us to hear the poet say some thing, part of an indefinite series of loss or leaving, has gone away. Again, the power of the singular. Do we know what that thing is? The poem decides not to tell us.* How does that choice rank against the power of the singular? If it’s not named it could be anything,  the ultimate multitude of possibilities. Here choices for singular things in this short poem become more important, because it then sets off this missing piece of information about what has gone away in contrast to the specific things named around it.

Wait, that’s not a springtime bird guarding its nest in the lilacs!

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Do you notice one more variation in the poem’s structure? Hint: how many lines? One, two, three, four…Oh, 13 lines. This works like a sonnet, it even has a turn, a volta, after 8 lines, as in one highly common sonnet format; but the final section is 5, not 6 lines.

It’s too certain a variation not to think that Rossetti decided to make a little meta point that other poets or sonnet fanciers alone will catch. “Yeah, something’s gone and left—there’s no damn 14th line!”

I can’t tell you why the variations in the exact text of this poem. I presume that someone, or Rossetti herself, did a light revision before some level of republication. Which is the latest? Which did Rossetti herself prefer? My scholarship is such tonight that I simply don’t know.

But I did worse. Just today, after I had finished recording the performance that you’ll be able to hear below, I noticed I’d made an error, a variation myself. The copy of the text I was working from had dropped the 13th and final line.

I could simply redo the performance, but it’s become difficult to record acoustic instruments over the past year for this project. Though it blunts the meta-point of the 13-line sonnet, I tell myself there’s power in my unintentional change. “Left me old, and cold, and gray,” the 13th line I inadvertently left out, tells us more about that mysterious thing that has “passed away” with May. My slip-up retains some additional mystery.

The player gadget will appear below for some of you to hear my performance of Christina Rossetti’s trimmed-down sonnet, accidentally trimmed again. If you don’t see the player, you can use this highlighted hyperlink, which will open a new tab and play the song.

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*Here’s another short write up about this poem, which summarizes some of the guesses about what has passed away. Some love gone sour is one guess, and what with the spring birth specifics in the first 8 lines, perhaps some opportunity to have a child would be another. My accidental deletion of the last line, with its emotional damage curtly listed, adds an element of “All things must pass” to the loss, the possibility of a more Buddhist outlook to a change that’s part of the illusion of possession.

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