Welcome to this month’s “A Favorite Poem” issue in which I present my current favorite poem to you. Granted, it’s almost the end of this month as I’m posting this, but all the same, I hope you’ll like it!
This month’s issue is from Christina Rossetti, a 19th-century British poet who’s especially famous for her poem “Goblin Market,” of which I read back in college as an English literature major. She’s especially known for her romantic works, along with elegant, metered prose which, on the surface level, appears to be simple in message, but is actually more profound than one might imagine. I came across this poem a few weeks back, of which I’ll share with you:
A Triad (Christina Rossetti)
Three sang of love together: one with lips
Crimson, with cheeks and bosom in a glow,
Flushed to the yellow hair and finger tips;
And one there sang who soft and smooth as snow
Bloomed like a tinted hyacinth at a show;
And one was blue with famine after love,
Who like a harpstring snapped rang harsh and low
The burden of what those were singing of.
One shamed herself in love; one temperately
Grew gross in soulless love, a sluggish wife;
One famished died for love. Thus two of three
Took death for love and won him after strife;
One droned in sweetness like a fattened bee:
All on the threshold, yet all short of life.
The poem’s motif is the number “3,” which is present not only in the title with word “triad,” but also in the “Three” mentioned in the poem itself. Some might interpret the three to represent three individuals (all female, with the pronoun “herself”) and some might assume them to be related to the unity in church (God, Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit), although personally I think the latter is a stretch.
Keeping things simply, I interpreted the poem to be about three women who go through life with an idealistic vision of love. They start out young and full of life, “with lips/Crimson with cheeks and bosom in a glow,/Flushed to the yellow hair and finger tips” that shows promise like eager flowers ready to bloom and prosper in the wide, wide world.
However, love takes a turn for the worse, as the characters start suffering because of it: whether it was grieving the death of a lover (“famine after love”), turning to prostitution (“shamed herself in love”), or in an unhappy marriage (“grew gross in soulless love; a sluggish wife”), it is evident that these female characters are not happy with Love, choosing Death in the end.
From this poem, what interested me was the ambiguity of the three characters involved: it has been made clear that two of them didn’t have a good life with Love, with the line “Thus two of three/Took death for love,” while “One droned in sweetness like a fattened bee,” but the consequences listed prior in the lines that I’ve discussed in the previous paragraph seem to imply that all three (and then some) didn’t lead good lives with Love. The question is whether two of them really suffered while one of them was fine, or if all three of them suffered? Or perhaps all of them suffered to varying degrees, but one of them remained living and happy afterwards? We’ll never know, I guess…
I believe this poem is in sonnet form, although not in the traditional Shakespearean manner at the end where the last two lines take on the same form as the previous stanza. It’s in iambic pentameter, and I feel that the structured nature of it (aside from the fact that it’s Rossetti’s style to do so) is meant to convey a sort of time-sensitive factor, in that the three female characters attempt to find Love before Death, but along the way become unhappy because of it.
That said, the poem’s form speaks to what I believe is the feminist discourse, for it seems to criticize how there’s a “limit” as to when a woman should get married, have children, and so forth, a concept especially prevalent during the Victorian period in which Rossetti grew up. “The Triad,” then, is showing the consequences of pressuring women to find “love” for the sake of society, which in the end hurts, even destroys, the physical and mental spirit of the female.
To finish off, I’m returning to the penultimate line “One droned in sweetness like a fattened bee,” which I perceive to be a positive spin on the rest of the poem. Assuming that one of the women did stay alive in Love, she has chosen not to subscribe to the conventions of being a “good wife” or “good mother” in a patriarchal society, instead choosing to “drone” freely and in “sweetness” as someone who’s unattached, i.e. not looking for Love. Instead, she chooses to forge her own path as an individual, and with that it appears to be a feminist stance on acknowledging and appreciate the virtues of the female body and mind.
Let me know your thoughts on this poem. Have a good day!
— The Finicky Cynic
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