“From the Antique” New Poems. By Christina Rossetti, Hitherto Unpublished or Collected, edited by William Michael Rossetti, Macmillan and Co., 1896. ABLibrary 19thCent PR5237.A1 1896
Rare Item Analysis: The Antique That Was Cast Away
By Parker Burk
“From the Antique,” written by Christina Rossetti in 1854, is found in the book New Poems (published in 1896). New Poems is a collection of works written by Christina Rossetti, but not published or collected in her lifetime. Her brother, William Rossetti, collected them after her death, as there was a large amount of public press and eulogy surrounding her death. New Poems currently resides in the Baylor University Armstrong Browning Library as well as online in its 19th Century Women Poets Collection. “From the Antique” in particular covers the subject of the daily life and alienation that Rossetti experienced as a woman during the Victorian time period. Many suspect that the reason this poem was never published was due to the undeniable critique it would have likely endured coming from a woman’s perspective. The second poem in this analysis is “A Castaway,” written by Augusta Webster and first published in Portraits in 1870. It is written from the perspective of Eulalie, who is a “fallen women” reflecting on her misfortunes. Both poems, though narrated from two characters in entirely different economic circumstances, reflect that women as a whole endured the same limitations, self-loathing, and alienation.
One of the reasons I chose Rossetti’s “From the Antique” for my rare item was to show just how revolutionary Augusta Webster’s poem “A Castaway” was. Perhaps Christina Rossetti never published “From the Antique” because of the critique she feared it might receive.
Expanding beyond sentimental topics considered more appropriate for women’s poetry, Rossetti and Webster pushed boundaries by writing about the oppression and alienation felt by many Victorian women. For Webster to write about such a controversial topic from the perspective of someone who is typically a voice unheard, is quite remarkable. Political women’s poetry at the time had to follow a certain balance between not being too controversial that it would be immediately disregarded, but still powerful enough to convey a message that could instigate change or attention. This poem was quite groundbreaking in its representation of not only “fallen” women, but women in general.
On that note, Rossetti’s “From the Antique” is a unique piece to compare alongside Webster’s “A Castaway” as it expresses many of the same feelings of weariness, loneliness, and self-loathing these women felt, but interestingly enough, from a woman, but not a fallen woman. “A Castaway” is a poem written from the perspective of a woman (Eulalie) who would be deemed as “fallen” in the Victorian time period (a prostitute). Meanwhile, “From the Antique” is a poem written from the perspective of a woman who was of normal middle class and considered a respectful woman of her time. When looking at the similar content in both of these poems, we can see how even if women did everything right, they could still feel the plight and entrapment that came along with being a woman at this time. We see this particularly in these lines from “A Castaway:” “Quiet is hell, I say — as if a woman / Could bear to sit alone, quiet all day, / And loathe herself, and sicken on her thoughts” (249-251). Similarly, “From the Antique” reads, “It’s a weary life, it is; she said: / Doubly blank in a woman’s lot: / I wish and I wish I were a man; / Or, better than any being, were not” (1–4). And even though throughout all of Webster’s poem Eulalie is expressing her disdain at her weary life, we do see her have a hint of distaste at having the opposite, more bland life. It is interesting how Eulalie seems to be looking down upon the type of woman in Rossetti’s poem, when one might think it would be the other way around. Meanwhile, the woman in Rossetti’s poem (most likely herself), is lamenting about her completely empty, yet proper life. Both women show a similar disdain at their complete lack of options simply due to being women.
Both titles of these two poems give us further insight into the roles these women see themselves playing. The title “From the Antique” suggests that Rossetti might see herself as the outdated and negatively-viewed object that is an antique. Contrastingly, Webster’s “A Castaway” shows that Eulalie feels as though she has been exiled from the society she lives in. In these lines specifically, it seems as if even though Eulalie is calling herself the castaway in this poem, it’s almost as though she would rather choose the independent life she has, than the self-loathing life of the woman in Rossetti’s poem. In Eulalie’s life she made the choice to be isolated, whereas Rossetti is simply isolated by her circumstances of being a high-standing, yet stifled woman. However, at the same time, I want to point out the aspect that in both of their positions, both women want to be anything but themselves.
In both poems, we see the recurring idea that women were an unnecessary and superfluous symptom of God putting too many women on the Earth. We see this in these lines from Webster’s “A Castaway,” as she writes, “But I say all the fault’s with God himself / Who puts too many women in the world. / We ought to die off reasonably and leave / As many as the men want, none to waste” (309-312). In Rosetti’s “From the Antique,” the speaker wishes she would rather be nothing at all and not exist, than be a woman. In these lines, it is important to note how it wasn’t a radical idea that Eulalie was suggesting; many men thought society’s problems could be solved if they got rid of all the women. Both women in the poems recognize this as a very real possibility. Rossetti’s speaker wonders aloud if anybody would notice were she to disappear, or if she is truly as insignificant as she feels. Here, we see how Rossetti’s speaker and Eulalie could be some of the unnecessary women that Eulalie claims men wish were off of this Earth. They recognize their insignificance, and sadly it seems as if Rossetti’s speaker might agree with her unimportant role in the world.
In “A Castaway” Webster’s speaker interestingly points out that she could very well have been the middle-class woman that we see in Rossetti’s poem. Do you think she might have been happier as the weary but fallen woman she is now, or the weary but high-standing woman she could have been? Both “A Castaway” and “From the Antique” are pivotal poems that represent the roles of Victorian women in their time period. We see this not only in the content, but from the fact that Rossetti felt she couldn’t publish a lot of her work due to her subordinate gender. Webster publishing her revolutionary poem at such a time is a testament to her bravery, as well as the need for women voices in literature. While both of the poems are narrated from two completely different social classes, we can see how in both of these two options women could still feel alienated, oppressed, and insignificant.
Webster, Augusta. “A Castaway.” Portraits. London: Macmillan, 1870.
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