Holy Innocents by Christina Rossetti

‘Holy Innocents’ by Christina Rossetti is one of the famous devotional poems written by the poet. Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barret Browning are two famous women writers of the Victorian era. Though Browning was a more famous and recognized woman writer at that time, Christina’s fame grew later in the Modern era. The renewed interest in her works brought out the exceptional qualities of her writings to the reading public. She wrote mainly devotional and children’s literature throughout her life. Apart from that Christina Rossetti is remembered till today for her famous narrative poem ‘Goblin Market’.

Holy Innocents by Christina Rossetti

 

Summary of Holy Innocents

‘Holy Innocents’ by Christina Rossetti is a devotional poem about the purity and innocence of a child’s soul.

‘Holy Innocents’ by Christina Rossetti presents an image of a “little baby” who is sleeping. The speaker in the poem seems to be the baby’s mother. To be specific it is not the case in the poem. In this poem, Christina uses the baby as a symbol of Jesus Christ. Whatsoever in the first stanza, the poet talks about the purity of a baby’s soul. The “holy Angels” of heaven love a baby for its proximity with God, the creator. There is no evil spirit or beast which can harm a little baby. A man’s spirit is so powerful at infancy that he is as powerful as the creator himself. That’s why the baby has nothing to worry about.

In the next stanza, Rossetti brings in the essential Christian elements in the poem. She resorts to them to advise the baby that Jesus Christ himself is protecting the holy spirits like him/her. The speaker, at last, tells the child that Christ is always with him/her while he/she is sleeping.

 

Structure and Form of Holy Innocents

‘Holy Innocents’ by Christina Rossetti is a conventional devotional poem of English literature. The poem contains two stanzas having equal line lengths. Each stanza of the poem has eight lines that rhyme in a specific manner. So there are a total of 16 lines in the poem.

The rhyme scheme in the first stanza is ABAB CBCB. In the following stanza, the rhyme follows ABAB DEDE format. The rhyme scheme of the poem resembles the rhyming of lullabies. The rhythm of the poem reflects the soft and caressing tone of a mother who tries to put her child to sleep.

 

Sound and Meter of Holy Innocents

‘Holy Innocents’ by Christina Rossetti contains a set metrical pattern. The syllable count in each stanza is also very similar. Such a composition makes the poem sonorous and rhythmic to our ears. Each line of the poem has a free-flowing sound scheme and the transition to the next line seems an easy-going process.

After scanning the poem to get the metrical scheme, readers can find that the poem is in perfect iambic trimeter. There are also some variations in the poem. The lines which contain seven syllables have a hypermetrical ending. Some lines in the text contain a trochaic foot at the beginning. Readers can find such a beginning in the first line in which the word “sleep” gets the stress. Likewise in the sixth line of the second stanza, “Christ” receives the stress. The trochaic variations amidst the iambic meter have a significance. The poet twitches the metrical scheme and uses the falling rhythm for depicting the fall of a human soul from heaven.

 

Literary Devices in Holy Innocents

‘Holy Innocents’ by Christina Rossetti contains some religious symbols as well as Christian metaphor. These devices may be the primary figures used in the poem but there are some other devices too. These devices structurally help the poet to convey her thoughts to the readers. The primary rhetorical devices are always of utmost importance. There is no doubt about that. Let us have a look at each of the literary devices used by Christina Rossetti in her poem.

 

Lines 1–4

Sleep, little baby, sleep;
The holy Angels love thee,
And guard thy bed, and keep
A blessed watch above thee.

In the first line of the poem “little Child” is a symbol of Christ himself. It comes under the literary device called metonymy. The third line “bed” is a metaphor of the world. The poet by using this metaphor means that the angels guard our soul always in our worldly journey. It is also a metaphor for the human body. Then the “child” is a reference to our soul. In the fourth line “blessed watch” is a transferred epithet or hypallage. Here the poet actually means that the angels are in a blessed state.

 

Lines 5–8

No spirit can come near
Nor evil beast to harm thee:
Sleep, sweet, devoid of fear
Where nothing need alarm thee.

The poet makes use of anaphora in the fifth and sixth lines of this section. Both of the lines begin with the word “No”. There is an alliteration at the beginning of the seventh line. The phrase “Sleep, Sweet” of this line, begins with the same consonant sound. Thus it also comes under consonance. In the same line “Sweet” is a metaphorical reference to the child.

 

Lines 9–12

The love which doth not sleep,
The eternal Arms around thee:
The shepherd of the sheep
In perfect love hath found thee.

In the first lines of the second stanza “Love” is personified. It is also a metaphor of divine love. Here the poet associates the idea of God by using this word. In the next line, there is a use of synecdoche. The “eternal Arms” stands for  God. The variety used here is “part for the whole”. In the third line of this stanza, the poet uses the popular biblical metaphor of “Shepherd of the sheep”. Here Rossetti refers to Christ as “the shepherd” and “the sheep” is a reference to human beings. In the Bible, the purity of the sheep is also a symbol of God himself for its purity and innocence. That is why Christ is always seen with the flock of sheep in biblical images.

 

Lines 13–16

Sleep through the holy night,
Christ-kept from snare and sorrow,
Until thou wake to light
And love and warmth to-morrow.

In the first line of this section, the poet uses a personal metaphor in the phrase “holy night”. There is a religious metaphor in the line “Until thou wake to light”. Here the poet implicitly refers to the divine light or the grace of God. In the last line, the poet uses polysyndeton for presenting three distinct ideas. In this line, readers come across two metaphors. One is “love” referring to the divine affection of God. Another is “warmth” pointing to comfort in heaven.

 

Analysis of Holy Innocents

Lines 1–4

Sleep, little Baby, sleep;

The holy Angels love thee,

And guard thy bed, and keep

A blessed watch above thee.

‘Holy Innocents’ by Christina Rossetti is a conventional religious poem that contains the stock symbols and images of Christianity. One such image appears in the first line of the poem. It is of the “little Baby”. The poetic persona in the poem lulls the metaphorical child to sleep. It is easy to decode here that the poet is either referring to the innocent baby or to Jesus Christ. By reading the next few lines of the poem it seems that the child is actually afraid to sleep. It can be the fear of death. There can also be some other reasons. Readers can find it in the last few lines of this stanza.

The speaker tries to assure the child that there is nothing to be afraid of. He/she is in a blessed state. His/her soul is far from the clutches of worldly impurities. The holy angels love the child as he/she is the manifestation of God. The heavenly angels are always showing the way to the baby. The blessed eyes of the creator are keeping an attentive look at the child. If something comes to disturb the soul of the child, the almighty is there to protect him against all the evil forces of the world.

 

Lines 5–8

No spirit can come near

Nor evil beast to harm thee:

Sleep, Sweet, devoid of fear

Where nothing need alarm thee.

In the next four lines of the stanza, Christina Rossetti goes on with advising the child as she has done in the previous lines. Rossetti’s poetic persona firmly believes that the spirits or the ghosts cannot come closer to the baby. An infant has such radiance in the soul that keeps all the negative energies away from him/her. Even the evil beasts mentioned in the fables cannot harm the child. He/she has nothing to worry about. Nothing in the world can endanger a pure soul.

 

Lines 9–12

The Love which doth not sleep,

The eternal Arms surround thee:

The Shepherd of the sheep

In perfect love hath found thee.

In the second stanza of the poem, the poet mentions the reason why the child can sleep without any fear in his/her heart. Christ himself is guarding his soul. The love of Jesus is ever with the child. Christ himself stays awake to guide the pure souls in the nights of life. The speaker says that the infant should not be troubled at all. Jesus is not only helping him/her but God also surrounds his eternal arms around him/her to keep him aloof of any impending danger.

In this section the poet makes use of the famous biblical image of Christ, the shepherd guiding his flock. It is a reference to the role of Christ in the spiritual journey of men. We, the flock of the creator, have a guide like Jesus Christ who devoted his life to redeem the whole mankind. Nothing can astray us to attain salvation if we follow the path shown by Christ devotedly. In the last line of this section, the speaker reassures the baby by saying that the savior of mankind, Christ himself has found the baby. He loves the child and cannot leave him/her in any condition.

 

Lines 13–16

Sleep through the holy night,

Christ-kept from snare and sorrow,

Until thou wake to light

And love and warmth to-morrow.

In the last four lines of this stanza, Christina Rossetti alludes to the journey of the soul to heaven symbolically. The whole poem contains such religious symbols like any other devotional poem. A reader has to be cautious and thoughtful while going through this poem as the apparent outer layer of the poem is nothing but a facade. The hidden meaning inside the poem comes into light when we think about each and every symbol and imagery used by the poet. The path of spirituality is also similar to the appearance of the poem. A person has to understand the symbolic references of Christ’s message for getting salvation.

In this section, the poet tells the child that Christ has kept the “holy night” safe from “snare and sorrow”. Why is the night holy? Christ’s sole presence with the child makes the night holy. He guides the soul of a person from worldly “snare” or traps and helps a person to stay calm in the sufferings of life. God and Christ never leave the soul alone. They assist the soul in this worldly journey until it reaches heaven. There in heaven, the soul gets divine grace, God’s unconditional love, and the comfort to heal the wounds it received on the way to heaven. In this line, the poet hints another reference of hope and rejuvenation by using the word “to-morrow”.

 

Historical Context of Holy Innocents

The title ‘Holy Innocents’ by Christina Rossetti has a biblical reference. Here the poet alludes to the “Massacre of the Innocents” by King Herod in Matthew 2:7-23. The day is commemorated in the church calendar during the week following Christmas Day. However, in the poem there is no direct reference either to the massacre or to King Herod. This hymn of Rossetti is appropriate on other happy occasions, such as Christmas and the birth and baptism of infants.

The artistic movement of the Pre-Raphaelites had a major impact on Rossetti’s writings. She was associated with the ideas of Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood like her brothers Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Michael Rossetti. Readers can find traces of the artistic innovations of Pre-Raphaelites in this poem. The lively imagery and symbolism present in the poem bear the influence of the movement on her mind.

 

Similar Poetry

The following poems contain the Christian elements and resemble the religious theme in ‘Holy Innocents’ by Christina Rossetti. Let us have a look at each of the poems.

  • In the Bleak Midwinter by Christina Rossetti – In this famous poem by Rossetti readers can find the birth of Jesus Christ on a “bleak midwinter” day. The innocence of baby Christ is similar to the purity of the “little baby” in ‘Holy Innocents’.
  • Love Came Down at Christmas by Christina Rossetti – This popular Christmas carol of the poet presents the divine love of Christ. In ‘Holy Innocents’ the divine love of Christ protects the innocent child at night.
  • The Retreat by Henry Vaughan – In this poem, Vaughan illustrates the purity of the soul of an infant and how it loses the divine grace in the worldly journey. In her poem, Rossetti also points out the purity of a child’s soul but she illustrates how it protects the child from all the evils.
  • Easter Wings by George Herbert – In this poem by Herbert, the speaker longs for heavenly grace. In Rossetti’s poem, the poet tries to heal the pain of divine longing. According to the poet, Christ is always with the soul even if it is far away from heaven. So there is nothing to worry about.

You can read about the Top 10 Christina Rossetti Poems here.

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