Later Life: A Double Sonnet Of Sonnets by Christina Rossetti


Before the mountains were brought forth, before
Earth and the world were made, then God was God:
And God will still be God, when flames shall roar
Round earth and heaven dissolving at His nod:
And this God is our God, even while His rod
Of righteous wrath falls on us smiting sore:
And this God is our God for evermore
Through life, through death, while clod returns to clod.
For though He slay us we will trust in Him;
We will flock home to Him by divers ways:
Yea, though He slay us we will vaunt His praise,
Serving and loving with the Cherubim,
Watching and loving with the Seraphim,
Our very selves His praise through endless days.


Rend hearts and rend not garments for our sins;
Gird sackcloth not on body but on soul;
Grovel in dust with faces toward the goal
Nor won, nor neared: he only laughs who wins.
Not neared the goal, the race too late begins;
Or left undone, we have yet to do the whole;
The sun is hurrying west and toward the pole
Where darkness waits for earth with all her kins.
Let us to-day, while it is called to-day,
Set out, if utmost speed may yet avail–
The shadows lengthen and the light grows pale:
For who through darkness and the shadow of death,
Darkness that may be felt, shall find a way,
Blind-eyed, deaf-eared, and choked with failing breath?


Thou Who didst make and knowest whereof we are made,
Oh bear in mind our dust and nothingness,
Our wordless tearless dumbness of distress:
Bear Thou in mind the burden Thou hast laid
Upon us, and our feebleness unstayed
Except Thou stay us: for the long long race
Which stretches far and far before our face
Thou knowest,–remember Thou whereof we are made.
If making makes us Thine, then Thine we are;
And if redemption, we are twice Thine own:
If once Thou didst come down from heaven afar
To seek us and to find us, how not save?
Comfort us, save us, leave us not alone,
Thou Who didst die our death and fill our grave.


So tired am I, so weary of to-day,
So unrefreshed from foregone weariness,
So overburdened by foreseen distress,
So lagging and so stumbling on my way,
I scarce can rouse myself to watch or pray,
To hope, or aim, or toil for more or less,–
Ah, always less and less, even while I press
Forward and toil and aim as best I may.
Half-starved of soul and heartsick utterly,
Yet lift I up my heart and soul and eyes
(Which fail in looking upward) toward the prize:
Me, Lord, Thou seest though I see not Thee;
Me now, as once the Thief in Paradise,
Even me, O Lord my Lord, remember me.


Lord, Thou Thyself art Love and only Thou;
Yet I who am not love would fain love Thee;
But Thou alone being Love canst furnish me
With that same love my heart is craving now.
Allow my plea! for if Thou disallow,
No second fountain can I find but Thee;
No second hope or help is left to me,
No second anything, but only Thou.
O Love accept, according my request;
O Love exhaust, fulfilling my desire:
Uphold me with the strength that cannot tire,
Nerve me to labor till Thou bid me rest,
Kindle my fire from Thine unkindled fire,
And charm the willing heart from out my breast.

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We lack, yet cannot fix upon the lack:
Not this, nor that; yet somewhat, certainly.
We see the things we do not yearn to see
Around us: and what see we glancing back?
Lost hopes that leave our hearts upon the rack,
Hopes that were never ours yet seemed to be,
For which we steered on life’s salt stormy sea
Braving the sunstroke and the frozen pack.
If thus to look behind is all in vain,
And all in vain to look to left or right,
Why face we not our future once again,
Launching with hardier hearts across the main,
Straining dim eyes to catch the invisible sight,
And strong to bear ourselves in patient pain?


To love and to remember; that is good:
To love and to forget; that is not well:
To lapse from love to hatred; that is hell
And death and torment, rightly understood.
Soul dazed by love and sorrow, cheer thy mood;
More blest art thou than mortal tongue can tell:
Ring not thy funeral but thy marriage bell,
And salt with hope thy life’s insipid food.
Love is the goal, love is the way we wend,
Love is our parallel unending line
Whose only perfect Parallel is Christ,
Beginning not begun, End without end:
For He Who hath the heart of God sufficed,
Can satisfy all hearts,–yea, thine and mine.


We feel and see with different hearts and eyes:–
Ah Christ, if all our hearts could meet in Thee
How well it were for them and well for me,
Our hearts Thy dear accepted sacrifice.
Thou, only Life of hearts and Light of eyes,
Our life, our light, if once we turn to Thee,
So be it, O Lord, to them and so to me;
Be all alike Thine own dear sacrifice.
Thou Who by death hast ransomed us from death,
Thyself God’s sole well-pleasing Sacrifice,
Thine only sacred Self I plead with Thee:
Make Thou it well for them and well for me
That Thou hast given us souls and wills and breath;
And hearts to love Thee; and to see Thee, eyes.


Star Sirius and the Pole Star dwell afar
Beyond the drawings each of other’s strength:
One blazes through the brief bright summer’s length
Lavishing life-heat from a flaming car;
While one unchangeable upon a throne
Broods o’er the frozen heart of earth alone,
Content to reign the bright particular star
Of some who wander or of some who groan.
They own no drawings each of other’s strength,
Nor vibrate in a visible sympathy,
Nor veer along their courses each toward each:
Yet are their orbits pitched in harmony
Of one dear heaven, across whose depth and length
Mayhap they talk together without speech.


Tread softly! all the earth is holy ground.
It may be, could we look with seeing eyes,
This spot we stand on is a Paradise
Where dead have come to life and lost been found,
Where Faith has triumphed, Martyrdom been crowned,
Where fools have foiled the wisdom of the wise;
From this same spot the dust of saints may rise,
And the King’s prisoners come to light unbound.
O earth, earth, earth, hear thou thy Maker’s Word:
“Thy dead thou shalt give up, nor hide thy slain”–
Some who went weeping forth shall come again
Rejoicing from the east or from the west,
As doves fly to their windows, love’s own bird
Contented and desirous to the nest.[1]

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[Footnote 1:

“Quali colombe dal disio chiamate
Con l’ali aperte e ferme al dolce nido
Volan per l’aer dal voler portate.”



Lifelong our stumbles, lifelong our regret,
Lifelong our efforts failing and renewed,
While lifelong is our witness, “God is good:”
Who bore with us till now, bears with us yet,
Who still remembers and will not forget,
Who gives us light and warmth and daily food;
And gracious promises half understood,
And glories half unveiled, whereon to set
Our heart of hearts and eyes of our desire;
Uplifting us to longing and to love,
Luring us upward from this world of mire,
Urging us to press on and mount above
Ourselves and all we have had experience of,
Mounting to Him in love’s perpetual fire.


A dream there is wherein we are fain to scream,
While struggling with ourselves we cannot speak:
And much of all our waking life, as weak
And misconceived, eludes us like the dream.
For half life’s seemings are not what they seem,
And vain the laughs we laugh, the shrieks we shriek;
Yea, all is vain that mars the settled meek
Contented quiet of our daily theme.
When I was young I deemed that sweets are sweet:
But now I deem some searching bitters are
Sweeter than sweets, and more refreshing far,
And to be relished more, and more desired,
And more to be pursued on eager feet,
On feet untired, and still on feet though tired.


Shame is a shadow cast by sin: yet shame
Itself may be a glory and a grace,
Refashioning the sin-disfashioned face;
A nobler bruit than hollow-sounded fame,
A new-lit lustre on a tarnished name,
One virtue pent within an evil place,
Strength for the fight, and swiftness for the race,
A stinging salve, a life-requickening flame.
A salve so searching we may scarcely live,
A flame so fierce it seems that we must die,
An actual cautery thrust into the heart:
Nevertheless, men die not of such smart;
And shame gives back what nothing else can give,
Man to himself,–then sets him up on high.


When Adam and when Eve left Paradise
Did they love on and cling together still,
Forgiving one another all that ill
The twain had wrought on such a different wise?
She propped upon his strength, and he in guise
Of lover though of lord, girt to fulfil
Their term of life and die when God should will;
Lie down and sleep, and having slept arise.
Boast not against us, O our enemy!
To-day we fall, but we shall rise again;
We grope to-day, to-morrow we shall see:
What is to-day that we should fear to-day?
A morrow cometh which shall sweep away
Thee and thy realm of change and death and pain.


Let woman fear to teach and bear to learn,
Remembering the first woman’s first mistake.
Eve had for pupil the inquiring snake,
Whose doubts she answered on a great concern;
But he the tables so contrived to turn,
It next was his to give and hers to take;
Till man deemed poison sweet for her sweet sake,
And fired a train by which the world must burn.
Did Adam love his Eve from first to last?
I think so; as we love who works us ill,
And wounds us to the quick, yet loves us still.
Love pardons the unpardonable past:
Love in a dominant embrace holds fast
His frailer self, and saves without her will.

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Our teachers teach that one and one make two:
Later, Love rules that one and one make one:
Abstruse the problems! neither need we shun,
But skilfully to each should yield its due.
The narrower total seems to suit the few,
The wider total suits the common run;
Each obvious in its sphere like moon or sun;
Both provable by me, and both by you.
Befogged and witless, in a wordy maze
A groping stroll perhaps may do us good;
If cloyed we are with much we have understood,
If tired of half our dusty world and ways,
If sick of fasting, and if sick of food;–
And how about these long still-lengthening days?


Something this foggy day, a something which
Is neither of this fog nor of to-day,
Has set me dreaming of the winds that play
Past certain cliffs, along one certain beach,
And turn the topmost edge of waves to spray:
Ah pleasant pebbly strand so far away,
So out of reach while quite within my reach,
As out of reach as India or Cathay!
I am sick of where I am and where I am not,
I am sick of foresight and of memory,
I am sick of all I have and all I see,
I am sick of self, and there is nothing new;
Oh weary impatient patience of my lot!–
Thus with myself: how fares it, Friends, with you?


So late in Autumn half the world’s asleep,
And half the wakeful world looks pinched and pale;
For dampness now, not freshness, rides the gale;
And cold and colorless comes ashore the deep
With tides that bluster or with tides that creep;
Now veiled uncouthness wears an uncouth veil
Of fog, not sultry haze; and blight and bale
Have done their worst, and leaves rot on the heap.
So late in Autumn one forgets the Spring,
Forgets the Summer with its opulence,
The callow birds that long have found a wing,
The swallows that more lately gat them hence:
Will anything like Spring, will anything
Like Summer, rouse one day the slumbering sense?


Here now is Winter. Winter, after all,
Is not so drear as was my boding dream
While Autumn gleamed its latest watery gleam
On sapless leafage too inert to fall.
Still leaves and berries clothe my garden wall
Where ivy thrives on scantiest sunny beam;
Still here a bud and there a blossom seem
Hopeful, and robin still is musical.
Leaves, flowers and fruit and one delightful song
Remain; these days are short, but now the nights
Intense and long, hang out their utmost lights;
Such starry nights are long, yet not too long;
Frost nips the weak, while strengthening still the strong
Against that day when Spring sets all to rights.

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A hundred thousand birds salute the day:–
One solitary bird salutes the night:
Its mellow grieving wiles our grief away,
And tunes our weary watches to delight;
It seems to sing the thoughts we cannot say,
To know and sing them, and to set them right;
Until we feel once more that May is May,
And hope some buds may bloom without a blight.
This solitary bird outweighs, outvies,
The hundred thousand merry-making birds
Whose innocent warblings yet might make us wise
Would we but follow when they bid us rise,
Would we but set their notes of praise to words
And launch our hearts up with them to the skies.


A host of things I take on trust: I take
The nightingales on trust, for few and far
Between those actual summer moments are
When I have heard what melody they make.
So chanced it once at Como on the Lake:
But all things, then, waxed musical; each star
Sang on its course, each breeze sang on its car,
All harmonies sang to senses wide-awake.
All things in tune, myself not out of tune,
Those nightingales were nightingales indeed:
Yet truly an owl had satisfied my need,
And wrought a rapture underneath that moon,
Or simple sparrow chirping from a reed;
For June that night glowed like a doubled June.


The mountains in their overwhelming might
Moved me to sadness when I saw them first,
And afterwards they moved me to delight;
Struck harmonies from silent chords which burst
Out into song, a song by memory nursed;
Forever unrenewed by touch or sight
Sleeps the keen magic of each day or night,
In pleasure and in wonder then immersed.
All Switzerland behind us on the ascent,
All Italy before us we plunged down
St. Gothard, garden of forget-me-not:
Yet why should such a flower choose such a spot?
Could we forget that way which once we went
Though not one flower had bloomed to weave its crown?


Beyond the seas we know stretch seas unknown,
Blue and bright-colored for our dim and green;
Beyond the lands we see, stretch lands unseen
With many-tinted tangle overgrown;
And icebound seas there are like seas of stone,
Serenely stormless as death lies serene;
And lifeless tracks of sand, which intervene
Betwixt the lands where living flowers are blown.
This dead and living world befits our case
Who live and die: we live in wearied hope,
We die in hope not dead; we run a race
To-day, and find no present halting-place;
All things we see lie far within our scope,
And still we peer beyond with craving face.


The wise do send their hearts before them to
Dear blessed Heaven, despite the veil between;
The foolish nurse their hearts within the screen
Of this familiar world, where all we do
Or have is old, for there is nothing new:
Yet elder far that world we have not seen;
God’s Presence antedates what else hath been:
Many the foolish seem, the wise seem few.
Oh foolishest fond folly of a heart
Divided, neither here nor there at rest!
That hankers after Heaven, but clings to earth;
That neither here nor there knows thorough mirth,
Half-choosing, wholly missing, the good part:–
Oh fool among the foolish, in thy quest.

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When we consider what this life we lead
Is not, and is; how full of toil and pain,
How blank of rest and of substantial gain,
Beset by hunger earth can never feed,
And propping half our hearts upon a reed;
We cease to mourn lost treasures mourned in vain,
Lost treasures we are fain and yet not fain
To fetch back for a solace of our need.
For who that feel this burden and this strain,
This wide vacuity of hope and heart,
Would bring their cherished well-beloved again:
To bleed with them and wince beneath the smart,
To have with stinted bliss such lavish bane,
To hold in lieu of all so poor a part?


This Life is full of numbness and of balk,
Of haltingness and baffled short-coming,
Of promise unfulfilled, of everything
That is puffed vanity and empty talk:
Its very bud hangs cankered on the stalk,
Its very song-bird trails a broken wing,
Its very Spring is not indeed like Spring,
But sighs like Autumn round an aimless walk.
This Life we live is dead for all its breath;
Death’s self it is, set off on pilgrimage,
Travelling with tottering steps the first short stage:
The second stage is one mere desert dust
Where Death sits veiled amid creation’s rust:–
Unveil thy face, O Death who art not Death.


I have dreamed of Death:–what will it be to die
Not in a dream, but in the literal truth
With all Death’s adjuncts ghastly and uncouth,
The pang that is the last and the last sigh?
Too dulled, it may be, for a last good-bye,
Too comfortless for any one to soothe,
A helpless charmless spectacle of ruth
Through long last hours, so long while yet they fly.
So long to those who hopeless in their fear
Watch the slow breath and look for what they dread:
While I supine, with ears that cease to hear,
With eyes that glaze, with heart-pulse running down,
(Alas! no saint rejoicing on her bed),
May miss the goal at last, may miss a crown.


In life our absent friend is far away:
But death may bring our friend exceeding near,
Show him familiar faces long so dear
And lead him back in reach of words we say.
He only cannot utter yea or nay
In any voice accustomed to our ear;
He only cannot make his face appear
And turn the sun back on our shadowed day.
The dead may be around us, dear and dead;
The unforgotten dearest dead may be
Watching us, with unslumbering eyes and heart,
Brimful of words which cannot yet be said,
Brimful of knowledge they may not impart,
Brimful of love for you and love for me.

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