‘Up-hill’ by Christina Rossetti
This week’s poet is Christina Rossetti, a 19th century Anglican poet who is often compared to Emily Dickinson. Christmas seems incomplete without Rosetti’s lyrical carols, such as In the Bleak Midwinter and Love Shown Down at Christmas. Yet the richness of Rossetti’s verse has been sorely neglected outside the Christmas season, as this excellent First Things article by Catherine Addington argues.
I join Addington’s appeal that Rossetti deserves our attention throughout the year and especially this Lent. Rossetti knew much suffering in her life, a subject she addresses in today’s poem Up-Hill.
Today’s Poem: Up-Hill
Does the road wind up-hill all the way?Yes, to the very end.Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?From morn to night, my friend.But is there for the night a resting-place?A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.May not the darkness hide it from my face?You cannot miss that inn.Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?Those who have gone before.Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?They will not keep you standing at that door.Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?Of labour you shall find the sum.Will there be beds for me and all who seek?Yea, beds for all who come.
Why this poem belongs in Lent
The Lenten journey covers rugged terrain, literally and figuratively. The last Sunday before Ash Wednesday, Anglican churches observe the transfiguration of Jesus. The transfiguration story is a hinge point in Mark’s Gospel. From his exalted glory on a high mountain, Jesus descends into the suffering that awaits him. The descending pathway from the Mount of Transfiguration leads to Jerusalem. The Palm Sunday procession begins on the Mount of Olives, yet it begins a steep descent along a narrow, winding road to Jerusalem. The final stage of that procession ascends again through Jerusalem’s gates. From Jerusalem to Golgotha, Jesus carries his cross outside Zion’s gates, climbing the hill that ends at the place of his crucifixion. Lenten pathways descend into darkness and ascend to the cross, the final up-hill climb. Rosetti’s poem traverses the terrain of the royal way of the cross.
Meditating with Rosetti’s poem
Let’s begin meditating with the signals Rossetti sends her readers. Count the questions in this poem. Eight questions, grouped in pairs across four stanzas. Questions establish the structure of this poem. So also the Lenten experience. Does the road wind up-hill all the way? Will the day’s journey take the whole long day? Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
These questions mark the poet’s journey at various stations. Her questions are like a personal commentary on the Stations of the Cross. Even if Rossetti doesn’t intend that association, seeing her suffering within the suffering of Christ is essential. As Jean Pierre de Caussade wrote, ‘Divine action often brings to mystical books a meaning their authors never had. God uses the words and actions of others to reveal truths which they never intended.’ Reading these aching questions with the Stations of the Cross helps one see that personal darkness and suffering finds its meaning in Christ alone.
Jesus said ‘whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.’ Rosetti’s darkness is the cross she bears. Speaking questions in lyrical form is the way she takes up her cross to follow the way of Christ.
In the tradition of the Stations of the Cross, Jesus falls three times before he is nailed to the cross. Rossetti collapses under the weight of her own series of questions. She dreads the possibility that there will be no resting-place in the night hours of her uphill journey. How can we miss the dread in a voice that speaks, ‘May not the darkness hide it from my face?’
Rossetti sends a second signal to her readers that is no less important than the sign of eight questions. For every question there is a response. Someone is present. Someone listens. Someone speaks in the darkness. The voice that speaks does not announce the dawn, yet the voice speaks that the weary traveler is not alone. Who responds to the poet?
It is one who has traveled this dark and fearsome path before. Of course, we hear Christ speaking in response to the poet’s questions. He is the One who endured the way of the cross.
But perhaps there is more than one respondent. What if each response to each question is a chorus speaking with one voice? Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?/Those who have gone before./ Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?/ They will not keep you standing at that door.
I hear Christ and the vast communion of his saints answering the weary poet. The communion of saints is not mute during the poet’s grief, for she belongs to a family who has suffered; a family whose suffering finds its meaning in the Stations of the Lord’s Cross. Within the stations of Christ’s passion, this family understands the stations and stages of their own suffering.
Reading Means Participating: The Third Dimension
Is this poem about the dark night of the soul, or is it about relationship and communion? Well…yes. Typical Anglican response, right?
There are not answers or solutions to the dark night of the soul. There are only directions to a place where people gather to comfort one another in the midst of their pain.
While the title and intervals of questions draw the poet’s dark night to the foreground, friendship and communion shape the background the background. These are the two dimensions of the poem. You and I, Rossetti’s dear readers, add the third dimension. We ask the poet’s questions, but we have our own questions, too. We long for communion in the darkness, searching for friendship in the midst of our own loneliness.
A Surprise Ending
We dare not miss the subtle, yet profound transformation that happens to the poet in the final two lines. For the first fourteen lines, the poet speaks only in the first person, inquiring about mercy and comfort only for herself. In the final couplet, the scope of her prayer broadens beyond herself: ‘Will there be beds for me and all who seek? /Yea, beds for all who come’ (emphasis added).
Encountering ‘those who have gone before’ reveals the anguish of others around the poet. The one who encounters the communion of suffering becomes a place of communion herself. She becomes a gathering place herself for ‘all who seek.’
In her suffering, she has become more like Christ. The up-hill journey transforms her more in the cruciform image of Christ. So may it be with us as we follow this Lenten up-hill journey that leads to the cross of Christ.
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