September 15, 2010

A Poem for the Day: "The Water Spirit's Song" by Christina Rossetti

Today I want to share a poem by another one of my favorite Victorian poets--Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894).  For those who don't know, she was the youngest sister of the Pre-Raphaelite artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (actually one of the co-founders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement).  If you look through the archives of my blog, you'll find that I have numerous previous postings dealing with her life and poetry.  She was a brilliant poet, and an incredibly fascinating woman.

The poem I am sharing with you is entitled The Water Spirit's Song, and was written by Christina in 1844 when she was only 13 years old!  Jan Marsh, in her superb biography of Christina Rossetti (Christina Rossetti: A Literary Biography, 1994, Jonathan Cape, pp. 634), says this about the poem--
"On March 4, 1844 she completed her first long fantasy poem, The Water Spirit's Song, running to 68 lines in three rolling periods, with a wave-like rhythm and conspicuous feminine endings.  The story is that of a naiad who departs each evening from her daytime station under a waterfall to join her sister, Queen of the Ocean, in the vast depths...Truth to tell, up to this point Christina's verse displayed little real promise.  Had it not been so self-consciously copied into the notebook, it would hardly be taken to presage an exceptional talent.  And in many ways this piece too is naive and derivative, inspired by Tennyson's mermaids and mermen, who frolic 'merrily' all night, and by water-nymph stories such as Undine.  But the skill that enabled Christina, at age thirteen, to imitate such works is less striking than the expression of feeling, through intense mesmeric rhythms and cool, watery imagery.  The atmosphere is cold but compelling, and vividly conveys the desire to float amid swaying waves.  Moreover, the twin motifs of this fantasy--the wish to escape and be reunited with a sister--surely point to recent events, notably Maria's departure" [her older sister, away as a governess].
The illustration that I have chosen to accompany the poem is Lamia, and was painted by the Pre-Raphaelite artist, John William Waterhouse (1848-1917) in 1909.  Somehow, to me, this beautiful painting seems to perfectly represent the water-nymph of Christina's poem.  Please feel free to 'click' on the image for a larger view of Waterhouse's painting.

And without any further ado, the poem--

The Water Spirit's Song

In the silent hour of even,
When the stars are in the heaven,
When in the azure cloudless sky
The moon beams forth all lustrously,
When over hill and over vale
Is wafted the sweet-scented gale,
When murmurs thro' the forest trees
The cool, refreshing, evening breeze,
When the nightingale's wild melody
Is waking herb and flower and tree,
From their perfumed and soft repose,
To list the the praises of the rose;
When the ocean sleeps deceitfully,
When the waves are resting quietly,
I spread my bright wings, and fly far away
To my beautiful sister's mansion gay:
I leave behind me rock and mountain,
I leave behind me rill and fountain,
And I dive far down in the murmuring sea,
Where my fair sister welcomes me joyously;
For she's Queen of Ocean for ever and ever,
And I of each fountain and still lake and river.

She dwells in a palace of coral
Of diamond and pearl;
And in each jewelled chamber the fishes
Their scaly length unfurl;
And the sun can dart no light
On the depths beneath the sea;
But the ruby there shines bright
And sparkles brilliantly;
No mortal e'er trod on the surface
Of the adamantine floor;
No human being e'er passed the bound
Of the pearl-encrusted door.
But the mermaidens sing plaintively
Beneath the deep blue ocean,
And to their song the green fishes dance
With undulating motion.
And the cold bright moon looks down on us
With her fixed unchanging smile;
'Neath her chilly glance the mermaids dance
Upon each coral isle;
And her beams she laves in the briny waves
With loving constancy;
And she never ceases with light caresses
To soothe the swelling sea;
All night on us she softly shines
With a fond and tender gaze
Till the sun blushes red from his ocean bed
And sends forth his warming rays.
And then she flies to other skies
Till the sun has run his race,
And again the day to the night's soft sway
To the moon and stars gives place.

And when the bright sun doth arise,
To tinge with gold the vaulted skies,
When the nightingale no longer sings,
And the blush rose forth its odour flings,
When the breath of morn is rustling through
The trees, and kissing away the dew,
When the sea casts up its foam and spray,
And greets the fresh gale that speeds away,
I fly back to my home in the rushing cascade--
By the silvery streamlet my dark hair I braid,
And then when the sun once more sinks in the ocean,
I glide with a floating and passionless motion,
To my sister 'neath the boundless sea
And with her till morn dwell joyously.


And to think that this was written by a thirteen year old girl!

If you like Christina Rossetti's poetry, and would like to read more, I highly recommend the Penguin Classics edition of Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems (edited by R.W. Crump, 2001, 1,221 pp.).


  1. Now this, I like. Her imagery is wonderful - I can see the sky, feel the breeze, smell the air of her world and well understand the depth of the ocean world. It is indeed interesting that she wrote this at thirteen. I've not read a great deal of Rosetti so I'll have to amend that. Thanks for the poem and the recommendation.

  2. I am so glad that you like this early poem of Miss Rossetti's, Jan! She is truly a wonderful poet, and one of my very favorite Victorian poets. Find yourself a little collection of her poetry, really wonderful stuff.

    If you've read A.S. Byatt's Possession, you'll find that Byatt gives more than a nod to Christina's poetry (probably Dickinson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning too). And if you haven't read Possession, do so soon. A most amazing novel! Cheers! Chris