The idea of romantic love being presented as invariably negative in 19th century literature is questionable to some extent. Romantic love is often characterised as being damaging and hurtful in Rossetti’s poetry through the contrast with divine love in poems such as ‘Soeur Louise de la Misericorde’ and ‘Twice’, supported by her religious devotion and dedication to God. However in other poems such as ‘A Birthday’, romantic love is presented as something that brings a newfound vitality to the speaker’s life. Through closer analysis of these three poems, it becomes possible to disprove the idea that romantic love is invariably presented in a negative light.
This idea of romantic love being invariably negative is explored in the poem ‘Soeur Louise de la Misericorde’. The poem centres around a woman who has recently become a nun, in order to distance herself from her identity with earthly love: ‘I have desired and been desired’. The first line immediately creates a wistful tone, suggesting that the speaker is unable to recall her experiences with earthly love without feeling the emotional pain attached to it. Similarly, the use of the past tense indicates that the speaker is desperately attempting to distance herself from her previous desires to escape judgement. This is particularly relevant to Rossetti and women of the Victorian era, where they would be shamed and sometimes even ostracised for expressing their romantic and sexual desires. This ridicule is also present when the speaker says that ‘dying embers mock my fire’. This is perhaps a metaphor to show the public ridicule that she has received, since fire is often synonymous with desires. The shift from past to present tense also shows that the speaker has repressed her desires and that and that they are now ‘dying embers’, relating to the vow of chastity taken before a woman becomes a nun.
Punishment of desires is also shown in ‘Goblin Market’, where despite being warned by her sister that ‘their evil gifts would harm us’, Laura is unable to suppress her desire to taste the goblins’ fruit. This has strong Biblical overtones, relating to the fall of man in Genesis when Eve was tempted by the serpent to eat the forbidden fruit. The idea of the fallen woman was relevant in Rossetti’s life also, since she devoted much of her time to a home for fallen women in Highgate. This shows that Rossetti has had a first-hand experience with how love and desire can have an impact on women, which may have influenced her writing and gives a suggestion as to why romantic love is presented us invariably negative.
Romantic love is also presented as invariably negative in ‘Twice’, where the speaker turns to God following rejection from a male suitor. From the beginning of the poem, a sense of the speaker’s vulnerability is shown instantly: ‘I took my heart in my hands’. This shows the speaker’s fragility and nervousness, suggesting that they have little experience confessing their true emotions to someone. The emphatic positioning of ‘I’ also presents a character that is active in voicing her feelings, which contrasts with the coy image that a Victorian woman was expected to present. This sense of defiance is also present when she asks her lover: ‘This time let me speak’, suggesting that she is a typically submissive character whose desires are overshadowed by her male counterparts. It also shows that the speaker has had to defer to male judgement in order to feel validated and has remained quiet as a result.
Female defiance is also present in Rossetti’s poem ‘No, Thank You, John’, where the speaker states that she ‘never loved you, John’. This is an effective opening line to the poem, because it immediately presents the reader with a female resolute in her words who is reclaiming her sexuality for herself, unlike the typical woman in Rossetti’s poetry who is subservient to men. Following the speaker’s rejection in ‘Twice’, she seeks out God to comfort her broken heart: ‘refine it with fire and gold’. This creates the suggestion that divine love has the power to absolve someone of their desires and presents it as everlasting, whilst romantic love is fleeting. However, despite the speaker having found a new lease of life, by submitting to God she is still deferring to male judgement. Despite this, the point still remains that the speaker is happy in this position compared with her experience of romantic love, meaning that it is presented as negative when contrasted with divine love.
However, even though a large amount of Rossetti’s poetry presents romantic love as negative, others – such as ‘A Birthday’ – take a more optimistic approach to love. In the poem, the speaker describes her heart as being ‘like a watered shoot’. The implication here is that romantic love has revitalised the speaker’s life and using natural imagery in this context enhances the vivacity of the situation and shows the beauty of romantic love. The use of this imagery also suggests that experiencing romantic love is completely natural, which contrasts with Rossetti’s other poems where divine love is favoured and sexual desires must be repressed. The positive perception of romantic love is also reinforced at the end of the poem, with the speaker declaring that ‘the birthday of my life is come, my love is come to me’. This shows the positive effects that romantic love can have on a person, suggesting that the speaker has found a new purpose in life – or at least appreciates the beauty of life because of it. The use of a ‘birthday’ to describe romantic love emphasises the idea that it should be celebrated and the joyful tone of the poem reinforces the idea that it is a celebration of love, meaning that love is not presented as invariably negative in Rossetti’s poetry.
Overall, it seems unfair to suggest that writings of romantic love are invariably negative. Whilst it is true in many of Rossetti’s poems – including ‘Soeur Louise’ and ‘Twice’ – that women are either hurt or punished in romantic love, others such as ‘A Birthday’ put forward the idea that earthly love is joyous and should be celebrated. Therefore, though there are few poems that argue against the statement, it means that it can still be disproved that romantic love is written to be invariably negative.