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A Better Resurrection
By Christina Rossetti (1830-94)
I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numb'd too much for hopes or fears;
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimm'd with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.
My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall—the sap of Spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.
My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perish'd thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.
We have met Victorian poet Christina Rossetti several times in this series. I think Rossetti and Ruth Burrows, whose poem “I made a garden for God” we read a couple of weeks ago, might have some interesting conversations! Both of them are people of deep faith and conviction, whose spirituality is neither simple nor untroubled. They are both poets who write of spiritual darkness and separation, rather than rapturous union.
Rossetti’s poems are not all gloomy. The same year that she wrote this poem, she wrote “A Birthday,” one of her most famous poems, in which she says, “My heart is like a singing bird… My heart is like an apple tree… My heart is like a rainbow shell.” But here she says, “my heart within me like a stone.” Rossetti’s spiritual poetry is seldom bright or joy-filled. Perhaps that’s because for her, poetry was a form of prayer, and she turned to God in prayer most especially when she felt distant from God. This is just my speculation, of course, but I think it’s borne out in “A Better Resurrection.”
Each of the three stanzas of the poem follows the same pattern. The speaker describes her life in a wide array of images, and concludes with a petition to Jesus. In the first stanza, she writes that she has “no wit, no words, no tears”: her intellectual and emotional faculties are numbed. This numbness does not come from indifference, but from isolation and grief: “Look right, look left, I dwell alone”; her eyes are “dimm’d with grief.” The language is full of Scriptural allusions: “I lift mine eyes” comes from Psalm 121, which is a prayer of confidence in time of need: “I lift my eyes to the mountains; from where shall come my help? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.” The echo of the Psalm is joined with the familiar phrase “everlasting hills,” which comes from Jacob’s blessing of his sons in Genesis, which is a prayer for abundance of life. The stanza ends with a direct address to Jesus, a prayer - “O Jesus, quicken me.” Bring me to life.
In the second stanza, the dense Scriptural allusions continue. The voice of the speaker sounds a bit like the speaker of Ecclesiastes: “truly my life is void and brief / And tedious in the barren dusk” the poet writes, and in Ecclesiastes we read: “All things are wearisome, too wearisome for words…. All is vanity and a chasing after wind” (1:8; 2:17). But, like the speaker of Ecclesiastes, this speaker is not without hope. “My life is like a frozen thing, / No bud nor greenness can I see: / Yet rise it shall – the sap of Spring; / O Jesus, rise in me.” Where the first stanza ends with a prayer for life, the second stanza ends with a confident expression that she will rise again. This prayer is more intimate: “O Jesus, rise in me.” It’s a prayer not just for the restoration of her life, but for Jesus to live in her.
The last stanza again draws on Scriptural images. In Ecclesiastes, life is described as a “golden bowl” that is broken; Isaiah speaks of God as a potter, who can form and reform us as a potter forms clay. Furnaces, hot enough to melt gold, are mentioned many times in the Bible, often in terms of the purification and testing of God’s people. The speaker describes her life as a broken bowl. She prays that Jesus will “cast in the fire the perish’d thing” and remake it into “a royal cup for Him, my King.”
For me, the last line of the poem comes as a surprise: “O Jesus, drink of me.” The speaker says that her broken bowl cannot hold even a drop of water or cordial—to quench her thirst, to warm her in the cold. I expect her to conclude by asking, like the Samaritan woman, for living water, springing up within her. Instead, she asks to be made into a royal cup, for Jesus to drink of.
This poem, which powerfully expresses the speaker’s sense of isolation, of dryness, of uselessness, also expresses her longing for a deeper union with Jesus. She not only asks Jesus to live in her, but even to drink of her: she wants this sharing of life to go both ways – she wants to give life as well as receive it.
When she writes of spiritual difficulties, Rossetti does so by leaning on the Bible. The more distance she feels from God, the more intensely she prays for union. And that’s why I think that ultimately, “A Better Resurrection” is a very hopeful poem.



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