Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy Blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?
Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;
Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon—
I, only I.
Yet give not o’er
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.
Having read this I decided to find out a little more about Christina Rosetti, having heard the name in conection with the pre-raphelite movement but knowing nothing about her. I still know very little so correct me if I’m wrong but I believe she
was a practising Christian, who apparently became recognised as a poet late in life and more so posthumously ,this poem for example published after her death.
Her poems were often devotional like the one you have posted. It just struck me reading it that it is interesting you chose to bring attention to this poem since in it she seems to be at a low point of faith being unable to grieve for the crucified Christ like everyone else, who could be characterised as true believers.
She compares herslf to an unfeeling stone not a true sheep of the ‘flock’. She appeals almost for action from God after the manner of Moses striking the rock in anger. She too has compared herself to a stone. Does she need action from God to revive her faith? Is she doubting and appealing to be smitten to bring her back to the ‘fold’?
Yes, she was a Christian, and she wrote quite an extraordinary poem above. All of her stuff is powerful and worthy of close reading.
Her “Jacob wrestling the angel” struggles with God makes her interesting to me.
In the above poem, for example, she seems to experience Christ’s crucifixion as all of us might experience a death that is not our own—with emotional stoniness. We think we should feel one way, but we feel another. Like in Camus’ “The Stranger,” we don’t feel the right emotions at the right place and at the right time. I suggest that you read Auden’s poem, “Musee De Beux Arts,” for a pagan example of this experience.
In any case, she imagines that others experience Christ’s crucifixion less ironically than her. But this is what makes her poem powerful, for she is a self conscious and overthinking Hamlet looking at Christ and imagining that there are some people somewhere capable of a purer, less perplexed, gaze.
But here’s the dirty secret: all of us are modern “overthinking” and “ironic” Hamlet stones. In other words, nobody can have a non-complicated, unironic relationship to Christ. Whether you are a Christian or a non-Christian, you must grapple with your stoniness towards others—and that includes Christ.
The poem, in short, is a beautiful meditation on what it means to be a human consciousness and not something mechanical that can be slapped into the right emotion and thoughts at the right place and at the right time. The slap from God that she longs to have administered at the end of the poem is a longing to be free from her Hamlet-like human consciousness. But to lose that is to truly become a stone, and lose our freedom and complexity.
Another poem you might check out is John Donne’s “Batter my heart three personed God.” It has that same longing to get clear in a way that would (paradoxically) arrest one’s freedom.
What I think might be profound (if there is a God) is that God embraces our perplexity, and doesn’t wish for us to drive our doubts away or have them slapped out of us. Isn’t it always more interesting to be loved, or engaged by, someone who is complicated? Maybe God likes complicated emotional responses to him (her)? How boring to be loved uncomplicatedly!
I’m sure it would be easy to find Auden’s poem and Donne’s poem quickly via google search.
Maybe I’ll post them at my site later.
One last thought: We are neither stones nor sheep, but Hamlets (“to do or not to do”—“to feel or not to feel”—“to be or not to be”). And therein lies our human tale. We’d give up a lot—everything?—to become stones or sheep.
A lot of people don’t like to think. They don’t want their freedom or their chaotic emotional responses. How nice to be uncomplicated!
Or so we think.
Firstly thank you for taking the trouble to reply in such detail. Your interpretation has revealed another layer of Rosetti’s message.
Likewise I see the same dilemma in Donne’s ‘batter my heart’. Without taking away human freedom he feels uncapable of being worthy of God. There’s always a very human nagging doubt and resitance to that deeply longed for unthinking immersion in God’s certainty and comfort. Only by pleading with God to remove that obstacle can he see a solution.
But that , as you say, is not the human condition. We are complex we aren’t stones or sheep and we have to live with that painful though it may be at times it is the price of our developed consciousness.
To me (but I may be wrong)Rosetti’s scene of the crucifixion contrasts with that of the fall of Icarus as described by Auden in that everyone and everything apart from the author does seem to take in the sorrow and grief of the crucifixion, whereas Icarus disappears without being noticed.
The general indifference to Icarus’ tragedy reflects human stoniness to non-personal tragedy but contrasts with Rosetti’s (and Donne’s) dilemma in that they feel unable to transcend this indifference whilst remaining free thinking humans (Hamlets) and not becoming stones or sheep.
Your question about God (if we allow the possibility, which as positive agnostics I assume we do) not wanting our complexity with all it’s doubts to be purged from us is fascinating.
We are who we are, as Donne and Rosetti realise even if they find it difficult to reconcile with their desire for faith.
We have the advantage over Donne and even Rosetti in that scientific advance has given us grounds and justification for doubt and explanation for our human condition. I wonder how they would write today?
“We have the advantage over Donne and even Rosetti in that scientific advance has given us grounds and justification for doubt and explanation for our human condition.”
Ah, then our stoniness of heart is complete.
Maybe science (to put it in Marxist terms) “heightens the contradictions.” Science might be good for the religious experience precisely for casting it into doubt and offering alternative and plausible material explanations for things. Maybe the discomforts of doubt make the path of life spiritual and human. And if so, then God bless science for making us wriggle. The truly stony heart is the one properly aligned with whatever faith program it has bought into, like a machine, not doubting its beliefs, and not feeling the variety of chaotic and contradictory human emotions.
Choose you this day…as Joshua said…we are free to decide to believe and obey God..or not….Romans 1:18-ff ” For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse”…
Romans 9:33 “As it is written, Behold, I lay in Zion a stumblingstone and rock of offence; and whosoever believeth on Him shall not be ashamed.”
So are we without hope? Romans 7:14 ff , vs 21 “I find then a law, that when I would do good, evil is present with me..” No indeed! read on.. Romans 8:1 ” There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are IN CHRIST JESUS who walk NOT after the flesh, but after the Spirit..”
The answer I Peter 3:21, and Acts 22:16 written to Saul/Paul a persecutor of Christians..”And now why tarriest thou? arise and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” He heard, believed, repented, confessed and last of all baptism saved him..all things a grown up has to do, not for babies. Then Paul lived for Christ…no longer a stone!