Rossetti, Christina. Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1872. With 120 illustrations by Arthur Hughes. Presentation copy inscribed by the author to Holman Stephens, with a two-page autograph letter (signed) and an autograph poem from Rossetti to “Holly.” Includes one-page fragment of manuscript by Rossetti on St. Mark. ABLibrary 19thCent PR5237.S5 1872 c. 2
Rare Item Analysis: Writing “Holly”: Christina Rossetti to a Child
By Jonathan Kanary
Recently the Armstrong Browning Library acquired a unique first-edition copy of Sing-Song, Christina Rossetti’s (1830-1894) collection of short verse for children. This particular copy was once part of a collection belonging to Jerome Kern (1885-1945), the notable composer, but has been unavailable to scholarship since it was sold in 1929. The inside flyleaf has been inscribed by the author to “Holman Stephens with C.G.R.’s love.” Tipped inside the front cover is a two-page letter from Rossetti to “Holly,” as well as a brief note and five-line poem, evidently to the same recipient; both are signed by the author. Tipped inside the back cover is one page of a prose manuscript titled in the upper-left hand corner “St. Mark.” There are a number of amendments and corrections on this page, so it appears to have been part of a working draft; it is numbered at the bottom “105” (the 5 appears to have been written over a numeral 4) and cuts off mid-sentence, so it is obviously a fragment from a larger project. It is unknown how this particular page found its way inside the back cover of a copy of Rossetti’s verses for children. She wrote about St. Mark in her (mostly prose) volume of meditations Called to be Saints, which was published in 1881, but while this MS fragment shares several commonalities of content with that meditation, the phrasing and arrangement of material is quite different. The identity of this MS therefore provides an opportunity for further scholarly exploration. However, the present post will focus on the manuscripts in the front of the book, and the light they shed on Rossetti’s approach to writing to and for children.
The letter to “Holly,” dated December 28, 1871, is mentioned in The Letters of Christina Rossetti (1.390). There the recipient is identified as Holman “Holly” Stephens (1868–1931), to whom Rossetti also sent this copy of Sing-Song. Holman Stephens was the only son of Frederick George Stephens (1827-1907), an art critic and early participant in the Pre-Raphaelite movement. An 1877 letter from Rossetti to the elder Stephens, which mentions “Holly,” confirms this identification (Letters 2.149; see below). Both Christina Rossetti and her brother Dante Gabriel maintained some degree of connection with the Stephens family through the years, as these letters and the autographed book indicate.
Significantly, however, the text as it appears in Rossetti’s published Letters is not complete. The full manuscript was not available to the editor; he writes, “The present location of this letter is unknown (1.391). As a result, he simply printed a portion of the text, as it had appeared in the 1929 Catalogue Note, and added a signature in brackets, allowing readers to infer that the letter ended there. The full letter is thus being made available to the scholarly public for the first time in this post (see images below).
The letter to Holly is particularly significant because—based on the published collection—it appears to be the only known letter from Rossetti to a child during the period of Sing-Song’s publication. This claim requires nuance, since Holly Stephens was only three years old when the letter was written, and it seems most likely that Rossetti would have expected one of his parents to read it to him; she thus has a double audience. Nevertheless, this short letter offers a unique glimpse into the way Rossetti envisioned one member of Sing-Song’s audience.
Considered in this light, the letter ascribes a striking degree of agency to young Holman. He is entrusted with messages to both his parents, thanking his father “for his kind note” and giving Rossetti’s “love to your Mamma, who I hope is not suffering pain in her weak state.” He is also tasked to tell his mother why Rossetti has not visited in person: she, too, is in a weak state and the doctor “forbids my leaving the house.” There is a kind of gentle humor here, since one of these parents will most likely see these words before Holly himself hears them. But as recipient of the letter, he remains the formal go-between for these grown-up exchanges of information. Rossetti thanks him for a portrait or photo “which in a way brings your little face before me though it shows me no pink or blue or yellow,” and she adds in a post-script that “Your nice grapes made our dessert beautiful on Christmas Day,” thus attributing both gifts to Holly himself rather than (more plausibly) to his parents. All this could, of course, be simply a kind of winking adult kindness, a way of acting as if she takes this child seriously. But the overall tone of the letter really does seem to take him seriously, albeit across a wide gap in age and maturity. Even the call to make his parents “very happy by your love and progress,” while it might strike some modern ears as an example of (perhaps condescending) moralism, nevertheless has the effect of making him morally responsible. Her letter supposes this three-year-old to be capable of personal growth and meaningful relationships. He does not merely receive things, whether the help and care of his parents or the well-wishes and collected nursery-rhymes of his “affectionate old friend,” as she signs herself. He is one who acts.
Sing-Song demonstrates a similar approach to children and childhood. Although many of the poems are simple light rhymes, others engage serious themes: wealth and poverty, kindness and cruelty, even death—especially death in infancy, an ever-present possibility in Victorian England. This attention to mortality makes the letter’s passing remarks about sickness, both Rossetti’s and that of Holly’s mother, potentially much more serious. Yet the poems on this subject also contextualize and create imaginative space for processing death. Sickness and suffering are things that happen in the world, and Rossetti does not attempt to shelter Holly or her other readers from this fact. Rather, she treats them as capable of both understanding and concern. Very young children may not fully comprehend what death means, but they are still likely to experience its effects, and Rossetti views her audience—even those who are so young that they need a parent or nurse to read a letter or poem to them—as capable of grasping and engaging meaningfully with these realities. For example, a poem about caring for the bodies of dead birds suggests that even children may be able to respond to situations of grief or loss with compassionate action: “Weave him a coffin of rush, / Dig him a grave where the soft mosses grow” (Sing-Song 10).
Similarly, several of Sing-Song’s poems reconfigure poverty and wealth. To be poor, one poem says, is to be without a father and mother; readers who have parents are rich by this definition (Sing-Song 3). In another, to have food and shelter is to be wealthy, even if that “wealth” is only a bowl of porridge by the fire in a small, chilly cottage; this is not an occasion for self-pity, but for compassion toward those out in the cold (Sing-Song 9). In yet another rhyme, Rossetti emphasizes that happiness is not based on possessions (Sing-Song 62-63). Throughout these poems, she is forming her young readers’ imaginations, drawing on her own Anglo-Catholic Christian spirituality and its confrontation of common assumptions about money and social status, but interpreting that perspective into non-sectarian and child-appropriate forms. But, as in the letter and the poems about death, she is not merely trying to do something to her readers. She engages them as morally responsible actors in the world. Poems about looking after a “motherless soft lambkin,” giving crumbs to robins in winter, or showing kindness to an elderly woman “sick and sore with pains and aches” invites even nursery-age children to an awareness of suffering and need around them, and to the possibility that they, and not just their parents, might respond (Sing-Song 61, 8, 105).
The potential complexity of such apparently simple children’s poems is underscored by the other manuscript in the front of this copy of Sing-Song. There is some question about the date of this document—an unknown hand has written “1877” on the top, but William Michael Rossetti dated it “Circa 1872” (Crump 3.509). In any case, it is almost certainly addressed to the same recipient. After the briefest note extending thanks for a “tea-rose,” Rossetti adds five lines of poetry:
Common Holly bears a berry
To make the Xmas Robins merry: –
Golden Holly bears a rose,
Unfolding at October’s close
To cheer an old Friend’s eyes & nose.
Ostensibly this is a poem about the holly plant; yet it is presented in such a way that, contextually, we read it as also about the little boy, whose birthday was in October. Something similar happens in Rossetti’s 1877 letter to young Holman’s father. There, she concludes: “Thank you for 2 Sprigs of Holly: I choose the dark one, & carefully return its fellow. How manly he is getting, & more I think like his mother than like you…” (Letters 2.149). Once again, the first sentence seems to be talking about sprigs from a holly-plant; but context gradually makes clear that the “Sprigs of Holly” must be drawings or (most likely) photographs of the growing boy.
This raises a question about the many poems in Sing-Song that, on the surface, simply describe natural subjects like birds or flowers. They may, of course, be only what they seem. But Rossetti was obviously capable of layering, and many of her poems for children offer a simple surface meaning that also allows the possibility for reading at other levels. Sing-Song even includes another poem about the holly-plant:
A rose has thorns as well as honey,
I’ll not have her for love or money;
An iris grows so straight and fine,
That she shall be no friend of mine;
Snowdrops like the snow would chill me;
Nightshade would caress and kill me;
Crocus like a spear would fright me;
Dragon’s-mouth might bark or bite me;
Convulvulus but blooms to die;
A wind-flower suggests a sigh;
Love-lies-bleeding makes me sad;
And poppy-juice would drive me mad:—
But give me holly, bold and jolly,
Honest, prickly, shining holly;
Pluck me holly leaf and berry
For the day when I make merry. (Sing-Song 116-17)
This does not appear to be about Holman Stephens, but its list of flowers and their emotional import does suggest a kind of allegorizing, or attribution of analogical meaning, which is suggestive about Rossetti’s general method.
A more subtle but striking example of such layered or symbolic meaning appears in a brief poem about a sick rose:
I have but one rose in the world,
And my one rose stands a-drooping:
Oh, when my single rose is dead
There’ll be but thorns for stooping. (Sing-Song 85)
This is a suggestive and allusive poem in its own right. But the illustration by Arthur Hughes gives it a whole different level of meaning (see image). Instead of a flower, he shows a child lying in bed, with an older person nearby. Set alongside this illustration, the poem reads as a treatment of the child-auditor’s own mortality, or the parent-reader’s potential grief at the loss of a child. Of course, this is the illustrator’s interpretation; Rossetti’s own sketch for this poem was more ambiguous, simply “a red rose with many thorns, drooping in a red pot” (Kooistra 42; see page 82 of Rossetti’s manuscript). But Hughes did consult Rossetti’s sketches for Sing-Song, and in fact his illustrations tend to follow her expressed idea fairly closely (see British Library). Moreover, a note from her publishers, appended to the end of a letter she had sent them, implies that she was involved in the choice of Hughes and states that he “very successfully carried out the author’s wishes” (Letters 1.370). In further letters to the publishers Rossetti reasserted his value to the project, and mentioned two illustrations she “particularly like[d],” which suggests some degree of engagement with the illustrative process and a general approval of Hughes’ work (Letters 1.375, 382). So she may well have authorized this change. At the very least, the artist’s visual interpretation indicates the diverse ways in which this simple rose-poem could be read to express a particular experience of sorrow or expectation of loss.
As Kooistra points out, “Nursery rhymes inevitably have a dual audience: the preliterate child and the reading adult” (42). Indeed, a few of the poems in Sing-Song deal with subjects such as romantic love or the longing for an absent beloved to return, which (as presented) seem likely to be more meaningful to an adult audience than to a child. But by layering her poems to present subjects that can be understood literally or interpreted to carry deeper meaning, and by assuring that each was accompanied by an illustration that could aid interpretation, Rossetti successfully addressed this dual audience with messages each member could hear.
This takes us back to the letter to young Holman “Holly” Stephens. By writing as she does, Rossetti draws Holly into imaginative and active participation in the realm of responsible moral endeavor; although he remains a child, he is offered a meaningful place in the adult world. However, by addressing her letter to a three-year-old, Rossetti also finds a creative way of speaking indirectly to his parents, who will almost certainly read the letter aloud for him to hear. He is thus given responsibility, but not too much; his parents will receive her messages regardless of his success as a messenger. Moreover, while certain phrases might have one level of meaning for Holly, his parents may grasp more fully what their friend is communicating about her own condition, and her concern and appreciation for them. The letter, like the poems, engages multiple audiences simultaneously.
The content of these brief manuscripts thus offers a unique angle on Rossetti’s approach to writing for children. Classroom instructors might well present this material alongside poems from Sing-Song to help students explore Victorian perspectives on children and childhood, and the way that nineteenth-century literature ostensibly aimed at children could include an adult audience as well. Additional scholarly opportunities presented by this rare item include further research into the identity of the “St. Mark” MS fragment in the back of the book, as well as the question of dating the “Golden Holly” poem MS and identifying its precise relationship to the letter.
The British Library. “Manuscript of Sing Song, a collection of nursery rhymes by Christina Rossetti.” N.d. Available at: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/manuscript-of-sing-song-a-collection-of-nursery-rhymes-by-christina-rossetti#sthash.7HZFSGir.dpuf
Crump, R. W., editor. The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti: A Variorum Edition. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.
The Colonel Stephens Society. “Holman Fred Stephens – Holly.” N.d. Available at: http://colonelstephenssociety.co.uk/holman%20fred%20stephens.%20the%20man/index.html
Harrison, Anthony H., editor. The Letters of Christina Rossetti. Four volumes. Charlottesville, VA: The University Press of Virginia, 1997.
Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen. Christina Rossetti and Illustration: A Publishing History. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2002.
Rossetti, Christina. Called to be Saints. London: Society for the Preservation of Christian Knowledge, n.d. Available at: https://archive.org/details/calledtobesaints00rossuoft
Rossetti, Christina. The Complete Poems. R. W. Crump and Betty S. Flowers, editors. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
 All citations of Sing-Song refer to the 1872 edition. Poems from this volume are reprinted in Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems, ed. Crump and Flowers.
 Although this poem is included in the collected Letters, this one-sentence note is not, nor is the signature. Again, the editor does not appear to have had access to the actual manuscript.