‘De Profundis’ by Christina Rossetti is a short four stanza poem that is made up of consistently patterned quatrains (each stanza contains four lines). These lines are all relatively similar in their length, with the first three spanning eight syllables, while the last shorter line, at half the length containing only four syllables.
Additionally, the longer lines can be said to be written in iambic tetrameter. Each line contains four iambs, each of which contains an unstressed and stressed syllable. The last shorter lines replicate the iambic pattern but contain only two beats making them iambic dimeter.
Summary of De Profundis
The poem begins with the speaker bemoaning the fact that “heaven [is] built so far” from the confines of Earth. As well as the fact that Earth is “set so remote” from heaven. It is as if all factors of God and man are working against her. She is unable to even get close to the “nearest star” in the sky, much less God.
The speaker is frustrated by the fact that even if she wanted to, she could not reach the “monotonous” round, moon. It teases and torments her in it’s unchanging “tune.”
She speaks of how her passion for heaven haunts her. She is unable to look at the sun or the stars and not feel mournful over her situation. It follows her day in and day out.
‘De Profundis’ concludes with the speaker saying that she is doing all of the spiritual and physical reachings that she is able to, and still all is beyond her grasp. She knows that her bonds on Earth will keep her from reaching heaven but she cannot stop hoping.
Analysis of De Profundis
Oh why is heaven built so far,
Oh why is earth set so remote?
I cannot reach the nearest star
That hangs afloat.
The speaker of this piece, perhaps Rossetti herself, begins the poem with her deepest desire. As the title of the poem states, “de profundis,” is about the speaker’s deepest feelings of sorrow and need and this is what the speaker will be discussing.
She begins by mourning the fact that “heaven [was] built so far” away. She knows it exists and experiences its pull but also feels as if it is completely out of her reach. As a compliment to this problem, she cries out, “why is earth set so remote?” Both of these things are working against her. The Earth is distant from heaven, and heaven is “built so far” from Earth. The tenses of the words used in these lines show that Rossetti feels that someone, or some entity, did this with purpose. It is not clear to her why that would be.
Not only can she not reach heaven, but she also is not even capable of reaching the “nearest star / That hangs afloat.” All of the universe stands between her and God, and she can’t even touch the closest part of it, so far is her goal.
I would not care to reach the moon,
One round monotonous of change;
Yet even she repeats her tune
Beyond my range.
In outlining her dreams and desires, Rossetti uses the moon as an example. She does not feel like she needs to “reach the moon.” It does not interest her as it is “One round monotonous of change.” It is too uniform in its shape to pique her interest.
But even this celestial body is “Beyond [her] range.” It frustrates the speaker that her ultimate goal is so far away and even if she wanted to, she could reach much lower hanging fruit. The moon is said to “repeat her tune” of monotony, out of the speaker’s grasp.
I never watch the scatter’d fire
Of stars, or sun’s far-trailing train,
But all my heart is one desire,
And all in vain:
From her place on earth, the speaker looks up into the sky and can always feel her heart’s desire. No matter when or where, when she sees the “scatter’d fire / Of stars” she is moved.
She is never without her longing. All of this though, she says, is “in vain” as there is no possibility of anything changing in the future. She is incapable of extending her own physical, or spiritual body, and there is no chance that heaven will move closer to Earth. It is defined by it’s distance and mystery. It must be allusive, otherwise, no one would pine for it.
For I am bound with fleshly bands,
Joy, beauty, lie beyond my scope;
I strain my heart, I stretch my hands,
And catch at hope.
In stanza four of ‘De Profundis’, the speaker reiterates her anguish, saying that she is “bound” to the Earth by her “fleshy bands.” This does not stop her from knowing what it is she is missing out on though. She can feel the “Joy, beauty” that is just “beyond [her] scope.” This makes it all the more tantalizing and torturous.
She does all that she can to bring herself closer to the world of God. She “strains [her] heart” and stretches to the sky with her “hands.” All fueled by what she knows is out there, she cannot stop hoping, even in her impossible situation, that she will see for herself the beauty of heaven.
It is ironic that the speaker’s desired goal in life is only going to be achievable by her death. She will never see heaven while she is still alive.
About Christina Rossetti
Christina Rossetti was born in London in 1830. As a young girl, she enjoyed studying classics, as well as novels and fairy tales. Her writing career began when she was twelve years old, and she published her first poems in 1848l when she was 18. Her most famous collection, Goblin Market and Other Poems, was published in 1862 and was widely praised.
She became known as the greatest female poet of her time, with much of her critical acclaim coming from the title piece of the book, Goblin Market and Other Poems. As well as being known for her writing, her political and social beliefs made her even more notorious. She was openly opposed to slavery, which was still being widely practiced in the American South, as well as cruelty to and experimentation on animals. Rossetti developed breast cancer in 1893 and died in 1894. Her grave can be found in Highgate Cemetery in London.