Dat­ing fa­tigue? This 19th-cen­tury old maid poet feels your pain

Love, like po­etry, takes time to be fully felt

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - NANCY RIT­TER Nancy Rit­ter wrote this for The Wash­ing­ton Post

Dat­ing in 2017 can be a tragedy and a com­edy rolled into one. De­spite the fact that sin­gles have eas­ier ac­cess to a larger num­ber of peo­ple than ever be­fore, many of us still haven’t found that spe­cial some­one.

Take com­fort, my sin­gle friends. Christina Ros­setti feels your pain.

No, Ros­setti is not an In­sta­gram model or Snapchat star post­ing about her re­la­tion­ships. She is the 19th-cen­tury poet be­hind the Christ­mas carol “In the Bleak Mid­win­ter” and the weirdly sex­ual fairy tale poem “Goblin Mar­ket.” And even though she was a de­vout Chris­tian who died a vir­gin in 1894, to me, no poet more ac­cu­rately de­scribes the joys, frus­tra­tions and sor­rows of searching for love in 2017.

Pic­ture this: Your phone buzzes and you look over. Lo and be­hold, it’s John — that generic bro you met at a bar. You’re not that into John, and you’ve told him this — mul­ti­ple times. But he’s ask­ing you to come see his best friend’s lame garage band again. What do you do?

You could send him Ros­setti’s “No Thank You, John,” the sassi­est spurn­ing ever set to verse: “I never said I loved you, John: Why will you tease me day by day, And wax a weari­ness to think upon With al­ways ‘do’ and ‘pray’?” John texts back that he’s “just try­ing to be nice. You don’t have to be so salty LOL. Can’t you just give me a chance?” This stanza should do the trick: “I have no heart? — Per­haps I have not; But then you’re mad to take of­fence That I don’t give you what I have not got: Use your own com­mon sense. Let by­gones be by­gones: Don’t call me false, who owed not to be true: I’d rather an­swer ‘No’ to fifty Johns Than an­swer ‘Yes’ to you.” You never hear from John again. Or per­haps you’ve been reg­u­larly hang­ing out with and hook­ing up with the same per­son for a few months. Your friends keep bug­ging you about mak­ing it of­fi­cial, but you’re not there yet.

Sound like mil­len­nial feck­less­ness? Maybe. But Ros­setti felt the same way in the 19th cen­tury. “Prom­ises Like Pie-Crusts” per­fectly de­scribes the fear of com­mit­ment and the un­cer­tainty of an early re­la­tion­ship: “Prom­ise me no prom­ises, So will I not prom­ise you; Keep we both our lib­er­ties, Never false and never true: Let us hold the die un­cast, Free to come as free to go; For I can­not know your past, And of mine what can you know?” These po­ems are just two out of dozens that are equally apt. Sick of at­tend­ing your friends’ wed­dings and wish­ing your happy pals would let you suf­fer in peace? There’s a Ros­setti poem for that.

Feel­ing giddy at the be­gin­ning of a re­la­tion­ship? Ros­setti is right there with you.

Won­der­ing how some­one who knew you so in­ti­mately can sud­denly meet you with in­dif­fer­ence? So did she.

It’s weird that a prickly old maid can de­scribe us with such pre­science and poignancy. But she did, and she’s not the only one. Emily Dick­in­son, Emily Brontë and Flan­nery O’Con­nor have all had their mo­ments on the big or small screen since the start of the year. Our cur­rent world is dif­fer­ent from theirs, but these se­cluded, sin­gle women can still speak so pow­er­fully to our lives.

Ul­ti­mately, I think, Ros­setti and writ­ers like her il­lus­trate the im­por­tance of depth over breadth in af­fairs of the heart. To­day’s sin­gles can try ev­ery­thing; no cor­ner of the ro­man­tic and sex­ual world is taboo any­more. With Ros­setti, it was the op­po­site. She pas­sion­ately loved both the con­fused, change­able Catholic James Collinson and the ab­sent-minded ag­nos­tic Charles Cay­ley, but re­fused both their of­fers of mar­riage be­cause they didn’t share her par­tic­u­lar re­li­gious be­liefs. She may not have ex­pe­ri­enced all that you or I are able to, but the lit­tle that she did ex­pe­ri­ence, she ex­pe­ri­enced fully.

I find com­fort in her words, know­ing that they were writ­ten by a sym­pa­thetic heart. And her work re­minds me that love, like po­etry, takes time to be fully felt and un­der­stood.

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