Dating fatigue? This 19th-century old maid poet feels your pain
Love, like poetry, takes time to be fully felt
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.