National Poetry Month — De Profundis by Christina Rosetti

I have the best friends. Seriously. That they would indulge my love for poetry and be willing for me to send them a poem to discuss, well, isn’t that just a mark of a good friend? Especially if it’s not something we tend to discuss in our day-to-day lives.

Here in Brazil, my friend Jo B. is my go-to girl for encouragement and perspective. We enjoy each others’ company and have a comfortable friendship where neither of us feel like we have to have all the right answers.

One of our favorite topics (within the context of the drama of our lives) is hope, where it comes from, how we hold onto it, how we can help one another find it. An obvious choice would have been Emily Dickinson’s Hope is the Thing with Feathers. But I chose De Produndis because I wanted a poem that really captured this distant yet present nature of hope we seem to struggle in life.

De Profundis

by Christina Rossetti

Oh why is heaven built so far,
Oh why is earth set so remote?
I cannot reach the nearest star
That hangs afloat.

I would not care to reach the moon,
One round monotonous of change;
Yet even she repeats her tune
Beyond my range.

I never watch the scatter’d fire
Of stars, or sun’s far-trailing train,
But all my heart is one desire,
And all in vain:

For I am bound with fleshly bands,
Joy, beauty, lie beyond my scope;
I strain my heart, I stretch my hands,
And catch at hope
.

Jo’s initial response was, "I feel so stupid talking about stars, the moon and feelings….. I love concrete things, that I can touch and feel." ( I really wanted to edit out the "stupid" from Jo’s sentence. She’s anything but. She is intelligent and vibrant and clever and sincere. I didn’t change it because I really wanted you to get her honest initial feeling about the poem.)

She went on to say:

"But I have been and am touched at times by nature that’s close, like a loud, terrible thunder storm that I can hear and see but am inside my apartment, safe; or a rough ocean, so big, scary, powerful, that you can stand close to but are safe. They don’t leave me unsettled or scared – I feel comfortable with my weakness, humbled in their presence, like everything is under someone’s control."

And all I could say in response to that was, "WOW."

About this verse:

Oh why is heaven built so far,
Oh why is earth set so remote?
I cannot reach the nearest star
That hangs afloat.

Jo had this to say:

"I can relate – as it regards to hope. I often find myself as a result of difficult circumstances in my life or the life of those I love, feeling so far away from hope, life, meaning, etc. (God). I feel so alone and I feel that if I reach out, like Rossetti mentioned, talking to someone, asking for help, I’ll just be disappointed because how can anyone really understand what is going on with me, who really cares? Like her, reaching out in the last stanza – I would be disappointed because that alone "reaching" to the unreachable isn’t going to give you anything."

I think Jo gets exactly what Rossetti was getting at. Hope seems unreachable, out there floating in the heavens and we just catch at it. It’s hard to hold on to.

Jo echoes this in her last statement to me:

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The fact is that I can relate to Christina in that the light/hope doesn’t stay long with me, most everything around me reminds me that I am insignificant and one in billions, easily overwhelmed."

My personal favorite verse is:


I would not care to reach the moon,
One round monotonous of change;
Yet even she repeats her tune
Beyond my range
.

Isn’t that "round monotonous of change" quite an image? For me, Rossetti seems to be saying, "I can’t even grasp the lowest of the heavens, the part that remains on its same course around me. It’s beyond me. And I wouldn’t even want to if I could. It’s too monotonous. I want the sun’s far-flailing train." For me it’s clear that Rossetti believes her hope lies elsewhere, in the one who built heaven "so far" and set earth "so remote." And yet she just catches at it.

So perhaps our feelings about hope are much like our feelings about poetry. Most of us feel like we just catch at its meaning, grasping pieces of its truth.

And I think that’s enough.

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6 thoughts on “National Poetry Month — De Profundis by Christina Rosetti

  1. Oh, this poem is breathtakingly beautiful! Thank you for helping me grasp some of its meaning. I don’t know that I would have reached the same conclusions, so I’m really glad you offered yours.

    Heavenly. 🙂

    1. Oh, that’s the thing about poetry. I think our own conclusions have meaning APART from the poet’s original intent. I have no clue whether or not my take-away from this poem was the same as Rossetti’s but I find out something about myself by reading poetry. So forget my conclusions, dear one. You can claim your own. (That said, I really do love discussing poetry with people and sharing our conclusions. I DO find out more about myself by listening too. :))

      1. It’s the same with most writings, isn’t it? A novelist (or memoirist!) might have one set of intentions for laying down words/ideas in a certain pattern, but the take-away might be different for every reader. I was very careful to point that out when I taught literature. It’s too easy (and not as much fun) to assume that there’s only “correct” interpretation.

  2. I don’t know what is more amazing, the depths of your thoughts about the poems, the depths of the thoughts of those you are sharing with…or the poems themselves.

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