Christina Rossetti: Poems

Sit Down In The Lowest Room

(Macmillan's Magazine, March 1864.)

Like flowers sequestered from the sun

And wind of summer, day by day

I dwindled paler, whilst my hair

Showed the first tinge of grey.

'Oh what is life, that we should live?

Or what is death, that we must die?

A bursting bubble is our life:

I also, what am I?'

'What is your grief? now tell me, sweet,

That I may grieve,' my sister said; 10

And stayed a white embroidering hand

And raised a golden head:

Her tresses showed a richer mass,

Her eyes looked softer than my own,

Her figure had a statelier height,

Her voice a tenderer tone.

'Some must be second and not first;

All cannot be the first of all:

Is not this, too, but vanity?

I stumble like to fall. 20

'So yesterday I read the acts

Of Hector and each clangorous king

With wrathful great Aeacides:--

Old Homer leaves a sting.'

The comely face looked up again,

The deft hand lingered on the thread:

'Sweet, tell me what is Homer's sting,

Old Homer's sting?' she said.

'He stirs my sluggish pulse like wine,

He melts me like the wind of spice, 30

Strong as strong Ajax' red right hand,

And grand like Juno's eyes.

'I cannot melt the sons of men,

I cannot fire and tempest-toss:--

Besides, those days were golden days,

Whilst these are days of dross.'

She laughed a feminine low laugh,

Yet did not stay her dexterous hand:

'Now tell me of those days,' she said,

'When time ran golden sand.' 40

'Then men were men of might and right,

Sheer might, at least, and weighty swords;

Then men in open blood and fire,

Bore witness to their words,

'Crest-rearing kings with whistling spears;

But if these shivered in the shock

They wrenched up hundred-rooted trees,

Or hurled the effacing rock.

'Then hand to hand, then foot to foot,

Stern to the death-grip grappling then, 50

Who ever thought of gunpowder

Amongst these men of men?

'They knew whose hand struck home the death,

They knew who broke but would not bend,

Could venerate an equal foe

And scorn a laggard friend.

'Calm in the utmost stress of doom,

Devout toward adverse powers above,

They hated with intenser hate

And loved with fuller love. 60

'Then heavenly beauty could allay

As heavenly beauty stirred the strife:

By them a slave was worshipped more

Than is by us a wife.'

She laughed again, my sister laughed,

Made answer o'er the laboured cloth:

'I would rather be one of us

Than wife, or slave, or both.'

'Oh better then be slave or wife

Than fritter now blank life away: 70

Then night had holiness of night,

And day was sacred day.

'The princess laboured at her loom,

Mistress and handmaiden alike;

Beneath their needles grew the field

With warriors armed to strike.

'Or, look again, dim Dian's face

Gleamed perfect through the attendant night;

Were such not better than those holes

Amid that waste of white? 80

'A shame it is, our aimless life:

I rather from my heart would feed

From silver dish in gilded stall

With wheat and wine the steed--

'The faithful steed that bore my lord

In safety through the hostile land,

The faithful steed that arched his neck

To fondle with my hand.'

Her needle erred; a moment's pause,

A moment's patience, all was well. 90

Then she: 'But just suppose the horse,

Suppose the rider fell?

'Then captive in an alien house,

Hungering on exile's bitter bread,--

They happy, they who won the lot

Of sacrifice,' she said.

Speaking she faltered, while her look

Showed forth her passion like a glass:

With hand suspended, kindling eye,

Flushed cheek, how fair she was! 100

'Ah well, be those the days of dross;

This, if you will, the age of gold:

Yet had those days a spark of warmth,

While these are somewhat cold--

'Are somewhat mean and cold and slow,

Are stunted from heroic growth:

We gain but little when we prove

The worthlessness of both.'

'But life is in our hands,' she said:

'In our own hands for gain or loss: 110

Shall not the Sevenfold Sacred Fire

Suffice to purge our dross?

'Too short a century of dreams,

One day of work sufficient length:

Why should not you, why should not I

Attain heroic strength?

'Our life is given us as a blank;

Ourselves must make it blest or curst:

Who dooms me I shall only be

The second, not the first? 120

'Learn from old Homer, if you will,

Such wisdom as his books have said:

In one the acts of Ajax shine,

In one of Diomed.

'Honoured all heroes whose high deeds

Thro' life, till death, enlarge their span:

Only Achilles in his rage

And sloth is less than man.'

'Achilles only less than man?

He less than man who, half a god, 130

Discomfited all Greece with rest,

Cowed Ilion with a nod?

'He offered vengeance, lifelong grief

To one dear ghost, uncounted price:

Beasts, Trojans, adverse gods, himself,

Heaped up the sacrifice.

'Self-immolated to his friend,

Shrined in world's wonder, Homer's page,

Is this the man, the less than men,

Of this degenerate age?' 140

'Gross from his acorns, tusky boar

Does memorable acts like his;

So for her snared offended young

Bleeds the swart lioness.'

But here she paused; our eyes had met,

And I was whitening with the jeer;

She rose: 'I went too far,' she said;

Spoke low: 'Forgive me, dear.

'To me our days seem pleasant days,

Our home a haven of pure content; 150

Forgive me if I said too much,

So much more than I meant.

'Homer, tho' greater than his gods,

With rough-hewn virtues was sufficed

And rough-hewn men: but what are such

To us who learn of Christ?'

The much-moved pathos of her voice,

Her almost tearful eyes, her cheek

Grown pale, confessed the strength of love

Which only made her speak: 160

For mild she was, of few soft words,

Most gentle, easy to be led,

Content to listen when I spoke

And reverence what I said;

I elder sister by six years;

Not half so glad, or wise, or good:

Her words rebuked my secret self

And shamed me where I stood.

She never guessed her words reproved

A silent envy nursed within, 170

A selfish, souring discontent

Pride-born, the devil's sin.

I smiled, half bitter, half in jest:

'The wisest man of all the wise

Left for his summary of life

"Vanity of vanities."

'Beneath the sun there's nothing new:

Men flow, men ebb, mankind flows on:

If I am wearied of my life,

Why so was Solomon. 180

'Vanity of vanities he preached

Of all he found, of all he sought:

Vanity of vanities, the gist

Of all the words he taught.

'This in the wisdom of the world,

In Homer's page, in all, we find:

As the sea is not filled, so yearns

Man's universal mind.

'This Homer felt, who gave his men

With glory but a transient state: 190

His very Jove could not reverse

Irrevocable fate.

'Uncertain all their lot save this--

Who wins must lose, who lives must die:

All trodden out into the dark

Alike, all vanity.'

She scarcely answered when I paused,

But rather to herself said: 'One

Is here,' low-voiced and loving, 'Yea,

Greater than Solomon.' 200

So both were silent, she and I:

She laid her work aside, and went

Into the garden-walks, like spring,

All gracious with content,

A little graver than her wont,

Because her words had fretted me;

Not warbling quite her merriest tune

Bird-like from tree to tree.

I chose a book to read and dream:

Yet half the while with furtive eyes 210

Marked how she made her choice of flowers

Intuitively wise,

And ranged them with instinctive taste

Which all my books had failed to teach;

Fresh rose herself, and daintier

Than blossom of the peach.

By birthright higher than myself,

Tho' nestling of the self-same nest:

No fault of hers, no fault of mine,

But stubborn to digest. 220

I watched her, till my book unmarked

Slid noiseless to the velvet floor;

Till all the opulent summer-world

Looked poorer than before.

Just then her busy fingers ceased,

Her fluttered colour went and came;

I knew whose step was on the walk,

Whose voice would name her name.

* * * * * * *

Well, twenty years have passed since then:

My sister now, a stately wife 230

Still fair, looks back in peace and sees

The longer half of life--

The longer half of prosperous life,

With little grief, or fear, or fret:

She loved, and, loving long ago,

Is loved and loving yet.

A husband honourable, brave,

Is her main wealth in all the world:

And next to him one like herself,

One daughter golden-curled; 240

Fair image of her own fair youth,

As beautiful and as serene,

With almost such another love

As her own love has been.

Yet, tho' of world-wide charity,

And in her home most tender dove,

Her treasure and her heart are stored

In the home-land of love:

She thrives, God's blessed husbandry;

She like a vine is full of fruit; 250

Her passion-flower climbs up toward heaven

Tho' earth still binds its root.

I sit and watch my sister's face:

How little altered since the hours

When she, a kind, light-hearted girl,

Gathered her garden flowers;

Her song just mellowed by regret

For having teased me with her talk;

Then all-forgetful as she heard

One step upon the walk. 260

While I? I sat alone and watched

My lot in life, to live alone,

In mine own world of interests,

Much felt but little shown.

Not to be first: how hard to learn

That lifelong lesson of the past;

Line graven on line and stroke on stroke;

But, thank God, learned at last.

So now in patience I possess

My soul year after tedious year, 270

Content to take the lowest place,

The place assigned me here.

Yet sometimes, when I feel my strength

Most weak, and life most burdensome,

I lift mine eyes up to the hills

From whence my help shall come:

Yea, sometimes still I lift my heart

To the Archangelic trumpet-burst,

When all deep secrets shall be shown,

And many last be first. 280