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Featured Poem: What Would I Give? by Christina Rossetti

Written by Rachael Norris, 4th November 2019

This week's Featured Poem is What Would I Give? by Christina Rossetti, chosen by The Reader's Learning and Quality Coordinator, Lisa Spurgin.

My first thoughts on reading this short but impactful poem through is how sad it makes me feel for the subject. They must have gone through some incredibly tough and emotionally-trying experiences to view themselves in such a negative light.

In some respects, they seem to be suggesting that they are beyond redemption. I’m thinking particularly of ‘this heart of stone ice-cold whatever I do’. Not only does the heart remain unchanged with the many and varied (we can assume) actions that this person is taking, but it is:

‘Hard and cold and small, of all the hearts worst of all.’

That is a very bold statement to make. I think a lot of us are harder on ourselves than we need to be and can often be our biggest critic, frequently neglecting to look at ourselves through the more forgiving eyes of others. I’m inclined to think that this has too often become the case for this person; perhaps they’ve come up against a number of obstacles in their life which has led them to believe that they’re always the one at fault. I’m intrigued by why they think ‘a heart of flesh’ is out of reach for them.

This leads me on to the question of the title – or is it a plea? It feels almost that way, given that it is repeated throughout and is accompanied by things which connect to our basic but deep human needs: emotional connection, stimulation, conversation, catharsis. What would any of us give for these things, in this same desperate situation? I’m inclined to say almost anything.

The contrast between the ‘misery’ that has rendered this person without words to express but also left their very spirit ‘fallen dumb’ and their ‘merry friends’ is particularly heart-rending. I find myself wanting to reach out to these friends and tell them not to desert this person, despite their commands. It’s also making me think of times when I have isolated myself, thinking that it was the best thing to do in the moment. Sometimes its only been in retrospect that I’ve realised that it hasn’t always been the case, and now I’m trying to take notice of myself in these moments, though it isn’t always easy.

The ‘tears’ that come in the last bit come as something of as a relief to me, although I’m troubled by them being ‘scalding tears’. They feel like a balm, a cleansing – and we do have ‘clean’ repeated – and it gives me hope that this person isn’t past the point of no return, emotionally speaking. I’m thinking of the adage that people often use, of ‘have a good cry, and then you’ll feel better’. While I think that’s perhaps a little simplified – especially for such ingrained sorrow that this person is feeling – I do believe it can be the beginning of a fresh perspective. I know that it’s definitely helped me in times of stress and frustration to let things out rather than bottle emotion up.

I’d be really interested in reading this poem with a group to see what other people make of it.

What Would I Give?

What would I give for a heart of flesh to warm me thro’,
Instead of this heart of stone ice-cold whatever I do;
Hard and cold and small, of all the hearts worst of all.

What would I give for words, if only words would come;
But now in its misery my spirit has fallen dumb:
O merry friends, go your way, I have never a word to say.

What would I give for tears, not smiles but scalding tears,
To wash the black mark clean, and to thaw the frost of years,
To wash the stain ingrain and to make clean again.

Christina Rossetti

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