Christina Rossetti: Poems

Under The Rose

'The iniquity of the fathers upon the children.'

Oh the rose of keenest thorn!

One hidden summer morn

Under the rose I was born.

I do not guess his name

Who wrought my Mother's shame,

And gave me life forlorn,

But my Mother, Mother, Mother,

I know her from all other.

My Mother pale and mild,

Fair as ever was seen, 10

She was but scarce sixteen,

Little more than a child,

When I was born

To work her scorn.

With secret bitter throes,

In a passion of secret woes,

She bore me under the rose.

One who my Mother nursed

Took me from the first:--

'O nurse, let me look upon 20

This babe that costs so dear;

To-morrow she will be gone:

Other mothers may keep

Their babes awake and asleep,

But I must not keep her here.'--

Whether I know or guess,

I know this not the less.

So I was sent away

That none might spy the truth:

And my childhood waxed to youth 30

And I left off childish play.

I never cared to play

With the village boys and girls;

And I think they thought me proud,

I found so little to say

And kept so from the crowd:

But I had the longest curls

And I had the largest eyes

And my teeth were small like pearls;

The girls might flout and scout me, 40

But the boys would hang about me

In sheepish mooning wise.

Our one-street village stood

A long mile from the town,

A mile of windy down

And bleak one-sided wood,

With not a single house.

Our town itself was small,

With just the common shops,

And throve in its small way. 50

Our neighbouring gentry reared

The good old-fashioned crops,

And made old-fashioned boasts

Of what John Bull would do

If Frenchman Frog appeared,

And drank old-fashioned toasts,

And made old-fashioned bows

To my Lady at the Hall.

My Lady at the Hall

Is grander than they all: 60

Hers is the oldest name

In all the neighbourhood;

But the race must die with her

Though she's a lofty dame,

For she's unmarried still.

Poor people say she's good

And has an open hand

As any in the land,

And she's the comforter

Of many sick and sad; 70

My nurse once said to me

That everything she had

Came of my Lady's bounty:

'Though she's greatest in the county

She's humble to the poor,

No beggar seeks her door

But finds help presently.

I pray both night and day

For her, and you must pray:

But she'll never feel distress 80

If needy folk can bless.'

I was a little maid

When here we came to live

From somewhere by the sea.

Men spoke a foreign tongue

There where we used to be

When I was merry and young,

Too young to feel afraid;

The fisher folk would give

A kind strange word to me, 90

There by the foreign sea:

I don't know where it was,

But I remember still

Our cottage on a hill,

And fields of flowering grass

On that fair foreign shore.

I liked my old home best,

But this was pleasant too:

So here we made our nest

And here I grew. 100

And now and then my Lady

In riding past our door

Would nod to Nurse and speak,

Or stoop and pat my cheek;

And I was always ready

To hold the field-gate wide

For my Lady to go through;

My Lady in her veil

So seldom put aside,

My Lady grave and pale. 110

I often sat to wonder

Who might my parents be,

For I knew of something under

My simple-seeming state.

Nurse never talked to me

Of mother or of father,

But watched me early and late

With kind suspicious cares:

Or not suspicious, rather

Anxious, as if she knew 120

Some secret I might gather

And smart for unawares.

Thus I grew.

But Nurse waxed old and grey,

Bent and weak with years.

There came a certain day

That she lay upon her bed

Shaking her palsied head,

With words she gasped to say

Which had to stay unsaid. 130

Then with a jerking hand

Held out so piteously

She gave a ring to me

Of gold wrought curiously,

A ring which she had worn

Since the day I was born,

She once had said to me:

I slipped it on my finger;

Her eyes were keen to linger

On my hand that slipped it on; 140

Then she sighed one rattling sigh

And stared on with sightless eye:--

The one who loved me was gone.

How long I stayed alone

With the corpse I never knew,

For I fainted dead as stone:

When I came to life once more

I was down upon the floor,

With neighbours making ado

To bring me back to life. 150

I heard the sexton's wife

Say: 'Up, my lad, and run

To tell it at the Hall;

She was my Lady's nurse,

And done can't be undone.

I'll watch by this poor lamb.

I guess my Lady's purse

Is always open to such:

I'd run up on my crutch

A cripple as I am,' 160

(For cramps had vexed her much)

'Rather than this dear heart

Lack one to take her part.'

For days day after day

On my weary bed I lay

Wishing the time would pass;

Oh, so wishing that I was

Likely to pass away:

For the one friend whom I knew

Was dead, I knew no other, 170

Neither father nor mother;

And I, what should I do?

One day the sexton's wife

Said: 'Rouse yourself, my dear:

My Lady has driven down

From the Hall into the town,

And we think she's coming here.

Cheer up, for life is life.'

But I would not look or speak,

Would not cheer up at all. 180

My tears were like to fall,

So I turned round to the wall

And hid my hollow cheek

Making as if I slept,

As silent as a stone,

And no one knew I wept.

What was my Lady to me,

The grand lady from the Hall?

She might come, or stay away,

I was sick at heart that day: 190

The whole world seemed to be

Nothing, just nothing to me,

For aught that I could see.

Yet I listened where I lay:

A bustle came below,

A clear voice said: 'I know;

I will see her first alone,

It may be less of a shock

If she's so weak to-day:'--

A light hand turned the lock, 200

A light step crossed the floor,

One sat beside my bed:

But never a word she said.

For me, my shyness grew

Each moment more and more:

So I said never a word

And neither looked nor stirred;

I think she must have heard

My heart go pit-a-pat:

Thus I lay, my Lady sat, 210

More than a mortal hour--

(I counted one and two

By the house-clock while I lay):

I seemed to have no power

To think of a thing to say,

Or do what I ought to do,

Or rouse myself to a choice.

At last she said: 'Margaret,

Won't you even look at me?'

A something in her voice 220

Forced my tears to fall at last,

Forced sobs from me thick and fast;

Something not of the past,

Yet stirring memory;

A something new, and yet

Not new, too sweet to last,

Which I never can forget.

I turned and stared at her:

Her cheek showed hollow-pale;

Her hair like mine was fair, 230

A wonderful fall of hair

That screened her like a veil;

But her height was statelier,

Her eyes had depth more deep;

I think they must have had

Always a something sad,

Unless they were asleep.

While I stared, my Lady took

My hand in her spare hand

Jewelled and soft and grand, 240

And looked with a long long look

Of hunger in my face;

As if she tried to trace

Features she ought to know,

And half hoped, half feared, to find.

Whatever was in her mind

She heaved a sigh at last,

And began to talk to me.

'Your nurse was my dear nurse,

And her nursling's dear,' said she: 250

'I never knew that she was worse

Till her poor life was past'

(Here my Lady's tears dropped fast):

'I might have been with her,

But she had no comforter.

She might have told me much

Which now I shall never know,

Never never shall know.'

She sat by me sobbing so,

And seemed so woe-begone, 260

That I laid one hand upon

Hers with a timid touch,

Scarce thinking what I did,

Not knowing what to say:

That moment her face was hid

In the pillow close by mine,

Her arm was flung over me,

She hugged me, sobbing so

As if her heart would break,

And kissed me where I lay. 270

After this she often came

To bring me fruit or wine,

Or sometimes hothouse flowers.

And at nights I lay awake

Often and often thinking

What to do for her sake.

Wet or dry it was the same:

She would come in at all hours,

Set me eating and drinking

And say I must grow strong; 280

At last the day seemed long

And home seemed scarcely home

If she did not come.

Well, I grew strong again:

In time of primroses,

I went to pluck them in the lane;

In time of nestling birds,

I heard them chirping round the house;

And all the herds

Were out at grass when I grew strong, 290

And days were waxen long,

And there was work for bees

Among the May-bush boughs,

And I had shot up tall,

And life felt after all

Pleasant, and not so long

When I grew strong.

I was going to the Hall

To be my Lady's maid:

'Her little friend,' she said to me, 300

'Almost her child,'

She said and smiled

Sighing painfully;

Blushing, with a second flush

As if she blushed to blush.

Friend, servant, child: just this

My standing at the Hall;

The other servants call me 'Miss,'

My Lady calls me 'Margaret,'

With her clear voice musical. 310

She never chides when I forget

This or that; she never chides.

Except when people come to stay,

(And that's not often) at the Hall,

I sit with her all day

And ride out when she rides.

She sings to me and makes me sing;

Sometimes I read to her,

Sometimes we merely sit and talk.

She noticed once my ring 320

And made me tell its history:

That evening in our garden walk

She said she should infer

The ring had been my father's first,

Then my mother's, given for me

To the nurse who nursed

My mother in her misery,

That so quite certainly

Some one might know me, who...

Then she was silent, and I too. 330

I hate when people come:

The women speak and stare

And mean to be so civil.

This one will stroke my hair,

That one will pat my cheek

And praise my Lady's kindness,

Expecting me to speak;

I like the proud ones best

Who sit as struck with blindness,

As if I wasn't there. 340

But if any gentleman

Is staying at the Hall

(Though few come prying here),

My Lady seems to fear

Some downright dreadful evil,

And makes me keep my room

As closely as she can:

So I hate when people come,

It is so troublesome.

In spite of all her care, 350

Sometimes to keep alive

I sometimes do contrive

To get out in the grounds

For a whiff of wholesome air,

Under the rose you know:

It's charming to break bounds,

Stolen waters are sweet,

And what's the good of feet

If for days they mustn't go?

Give me a longer tether, 360

Or I may break from it.

Now I have eyes and ears

And just some little wit:

'Almost my Lady's child;'

I recollect she smiled,

Sighed and blushed together;

Then her story of the ring

Sounds not improbable,

She told it me so well

It seemed the actual thing:-- 370

Oh, keep your counsel close,

But I guess under the rose,

In long past summer weather

When the world was blossoming,

And the rose upon its thorn:

I guess not who he was

Flawed honour like a glass,

And made my life forlorn,

But my Mother, Mother, Mother,

Oh, I know her from all other. 380

My Lady, you might trust

Your daughter with your fame.

Trust me, I would not shame

Our honourable name,

For I have noble blood

Though I was bred in dust

And brought up in the mud.

I will not press my claim,

Just leave me where you will:

But you might trust your daughter, 390

For blood is thicker than water

And you're my mother still.

So my Lady holds her own

With condescending grace,

and fills her lofty place

With an untroubled face

As a queen may fill a throne.

While I could hint a tale--

(But then I am her child)--

Would make her quail; 400

Would set her in the dust,

Lorn with no comforter,

Her glorious hair defiled

And ashes on her cheek:

The decent world would thrust

Its finger out at her,

Not much displeased I think

To make a nine days' stir;

The decent world would sink

Its voice to speak of her. 410

Now this is what I mean

To do, no more, no less:

Never to speak, or show

Bare sign of what I know.

Let the blot pass unseen;

Yea, let her never guess

I hold the tangled clue

She huddles out of view.

Friend, servant, almost child,

So be it and nothing more 420

On this side of the grave.

Mother, in Paradise,

You'll see with clearer eyes;

Perhaps in this world even

When you are like to die

And face to face with Heaven

You'll drop for once the lie:

But you must drop the mask, not I.

My Lady promises

Two hundred pounds with me 430

Whenever I may wed

A man she can approve:

And since besides her bounty

I'm fairest in the county

(For so I've heard it said,

Though I don't vouch for this),

Her promised pounds may move

Some honest man to see

My virtues and my beauties;

Perhaps the rising grazier, 440

Or temperance publican,

May claim my wifely duties.

Meanwhile I wait their leisure

And grace-bestowing pleasure,

I wait the happy man;

But if I hold my head

And pitch my expectations

Just higher than their level,

They must fall back on patience:

I may not mean to wed, 450

Yet I'll be civil.

Now sometimes in a dream

My heart goes out of me

To build and scheme,

Till I sob after things that seem

So pleasant in a dream:

A home such as I see

My blessed neighbours live in

With father and with mother,

All proud of one another, 460

Named by one common name

From baby in the bud

To full-blown workman father;

It's little short of Heaven.

I'd give my gentle blood

To wash my special shame

And drown my private grudge;

I'd toil and moil much rather

The dingiest cottage drudge

Whose mother need not blush, 470

Than live here like a lady

And see my Mother flush

And hear her voice unsteady

Sometimes, yet never dare

Ask to share her care.

Of course the servants sneer

Behind my back at me;

Of course the village girls,

Who envy me my curls

And gowns and idleness, 480

Take comfort in a jeer;

Of course the ladies guess

Just so much of my history

As points the emphatic stress

With which they laud my Lady;

The gentlemen who catch

A casual glimpse of me

And turn again to see,

Their valets on the watch

To speak a word with me, 490

All know and sting me wild;

Till I am almost ready

To wish that I were dead,

No faces more to see,

No more words to be said,

My Mother safe at last

Disburdened of her child,

And the past past.

'All equal before God'--

Our Rector has it so, 500

And sundry sleepers nod:

It may be so; I know

All are not equal here,

And when the sleepers wake

They make a difference.

'All equal in the grave'--

That shows an obvious sense:

Yet something which I crave

Not death itself brings near;

Now should death half atone 510

For all my past; or make

The name I bear my own?

I love my dear old Nurse

Who loved me without gains;

I love my mistress even,

Friend, Mother, what you will:

But I could almost curse

My Father for his pains;

And sometimes at my prayer

Kneeling in sight of Heaven 520

I almost curse him still:

Why did he set his snare

To catch at unaware

My Mother's foolish youth;

Load me with shame that's hers,

And her with something worse,

A lifelong lie for truth?

I think my mind is fixed

On one point and made up:

To accept my lot unmixed; 530

Never to drug the cup

But drink it by myself.

I'll not be wooed for pelf;

I'll not blot out my shame

With any man's good name;

But nameless as I stand,

My hand is my own hand,

And nameless as I came

I go to the dark land.

'All equal in the grave'-- 540

I bide my time till then:

'All equal before God'--

To-day I feel His rod,

To-morrow He may save: