‘Jessie Cameron’ by Christina Rossetti is a ten stanza poem that is divided into sets of twelve lines. These lines follow a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABABCDCDEFEF, alternating end sounds from stanza to stanza. This straightforward rhyme scheme is common in Rossetti’s poems and is particularly interesting when employed in this case.
In regards to the meter, there is no single pattern that unifies all of the lines. But, they are all of a similar length, only lasting between six and eight syllables. This feature balances out the very consistent rhyme scheme and ensures that the content of the narrative is the reader’s main focus.
It is also interesting to note how the adding or dropping of a syllable can change a line so dramatically. For instance, line twelve of the first stanza. This phrase is repeated twice, but the second time it is stripped down to just six syllables. It is more impactful this way. It is clear the speaker feels strongly about her decision. She is “no mate” for her past lover.
The poem begins with the speaker giving a few basic details about the scene and characters. The main focus of the poem is Jessie Cameron. A brave young woman who is continually having to rebuke the advances of a young man, her neighbor’s son. He intends to marry her, but she wants nothing to do with him.
They are alone, arguing by the sea. These discussions go much later than they should’ve and before Jessie knows it the foam of the sea is rising up around her ankles. Here, the speaker breaks away from the two young people. No one is sure what happened next. Some think that he killed her, others, that they were both dragged out into the ocean. There is an ever-present mystery surrounding their disappearance as their bodies were never found.
One of the most important themes of this piece, and something around which the events revolve, is pride. This character trait can be seen in both Jessie Cameron and the neighbor’s son who she refuses to marry. From the very beginning of the text, it is made very clear that she has no interest in this person. She has enough pride and strength in her sense of being that she’s willing to flaunt social norms and carry on without getting married. (This is also seen through her presence by the sea, alone with a male companion.)
If addressing Jessie’s pride, it is important to consider the man’s as well. He is utterly persistent, unwilling to accept that Jessie has no interest in marrying him. His pride leads to her death. This takes the reader into another important aspect of the text, the patriarchy, and how it influences the outcomes of the poem. As stated previously, Jessie ignores a number of social norms by refusing this person’s marriage proposal and by being “careless” and “fearless.” These were not attributes that a woman of Rossetti’s time should’ve been known for.
Analysis of Jessie Cameron
“Jessie, Jessie Cameron,
Hear me but this once,” quoth he.
“Good luck go with you, neighbor’s son,
But I’m no mate for you,” quoth she.
Day was verging toward the night
There beside the moaning sea,
Dimness overtook the light
There where the breakers be.
“O Jessie, Jessie Cameron,
I have loved you long and true.”–
“Good luck go with you, neighbor’s son,
But I’m no mate for you.”
In the first stanza of ‘Jessie Cameron’ the speaker begins by relaying the words of the “neighbor’s son.” He is pleading with “Jessie Cameron” to “Hear [him] but this once.” The young man has something he needs to say to the main character, and he’s obviously desperate. He repeats her first name twice, then does it again in the ninth line of this stanza as well. This shows how insistent he is that she listen.
Jessie’s response comes in and she dismisses him. She does not need to hear what he has to say, but wishes him luck and tries to send him on his way. The speaker takes a moment to describe the scene at this point. The interaction between the two is backed by the setting sun and the personified, “moaning sea.”
There is a sense of foreboding created by Rossetti focusing on the way that light is being usurped by darkness. This foreshadows bad things to come.
The neighbour’s son is still convinced that if only Jessie would listen to him that he could convince her to love him. In the last line she repeats what she said in the fourth, that she is “not mate” for him. There is something about their relationship dynamic that makes her think that they are not suited. As stated above, her dismissiveness is striking, especially for the time. Women did not act so “fearless[ly] as Jessie does in this story.
She was a careless, fearless girl,
And made her answer plain;
Outspoken she to earl or churl,
Kind-hearted in the main,
But somewhat heedless with her tongue,
And apt at causing pain;
A mirthful maiden she and young,
Most fair for bliss or bane.
“O, long ago I told you so,
I tell you so to-day:
Go you your way, and let me go
Just my own free way.”
In the second stanza the speaker dedicates the first eight lines to further description of Jessie. She is “careless” for her time and makes her answers very “plain.” She did not play any games. Her outspokenness was well-known, and those who were close to her knew that she was “Kind-hearted in the main.” This good part of her is usually unseen as she can be “heedless with her tongue” and “apt at causing pain.” These lines are exactly what one would expect from this time period. Her clearheaded, calm rejection of the neighbour’s son is seen as cruel.
The last four lines of the second stanza are a repetition of what Jessie said before. She ask the young man go on on about his life and let her have her “own free way.”
The sea swept in with moaˆn and foam
Quickening the stretch of sand;
They stood almost in sight of home;
He strove to take her hand.
“O, can’t you take your answer then,
And won’t you understand?
For me you’re not the man of men,
I’ve other plans are planned.
You’re good for Madge, or good for Cis,
Or good for Kate, may be:
But what’s to me the good of this
While you’re not good for me?”
The setting is given further attention at this point, and the sea is described as very powerful. Next to the couple is an unstoppable force that seems to be in wait.
The neighbour’s son who still doesn’t, (and never will), have a name, tries to take Jessie’s hand. She still wants nothing to do with him and tells him that he’d be better off with “Madge” or “Cis” or “Kate.” Jessie does not want anything to do with him and hates that she has to deal with his advances when he is “not good” for her.
They stood together on the beach,
They two alone,
And louder waxed his urgent speech,
His patience almost gone:
“O, say but one kind word to me,
Jessie, Jessie Cameron.”–
“I’d be too proud to beg,” quoth she,
And pride was in her tone.
pride was in her lifted head,
And in her angry eye,
And in her foot, which might have fled,
But would not fly.
The young man begins to grow impatient with Jessie, unwilling to accept her answer. He feels that it is his right to marry her if he so chooses. They are completely alone on the shore together. He pleads with her to say only one “kind word” to him.
Her pride is emphasized in the following lines as the speaker explains how all her actions are dictated by it. She could’ve left him there, but her foot “would not fly.”
Some say that he had gypsy blood,
That in his heart was guile:
Yet he had gone through fire and flood
Only to win her smile.
Some say his grandam was a witch,
A black witch from beyond the Nile,
Who kept an image in a niche
And talked with it the while.
And by her hut far down the lane
Some say they would not pass at night,
Lest they should hear an unked strain
Or see an unked sight.
The fifth stanza attempts to explain where the neighbour is coming from. He went through a lot to “win her smile.” Perhaps in his heart “was guile” or maybe he “had gypsy blood.” There are others who speculated that his “grandam was a witch…from beyond the Nile.” There is a bit of local lore about this women. That she lived in a “hut down the lane” that others did not want to pass at night. If one did go this way then they might hear or see something “unked” or strange.
Alas, for Jessie Cameron!–
The sea crept moaning, moaning nigher:
She should have hastened to be gone,–
The sea swept higher, breaking by her:
She should have hastened to her home
While yet the west was flushed with fire,
But now her feet are in the foam,
The sea-foam, sweeping higher.
O mother, linger at your door,
And light your lamp to make it plain;
But Jessie she comes home no more,
No more again.
At the beginning of the sixth stanza, exactly halfway through the poem, the reader is informed that something terrible has happened. The feeling of foreboding that permeated the previous stanzas did lead to a negative outcome. The speaker uses the word “Alas” before repeating Jessie’s name. They are mourning for her, and what happens to her in the next lines.
The discussion between Jessie and the neighbour’s son lasts for longer than it should’ve. The time passed when Jessie needed “to be gone.” While they argued the sea grew behind them. It “swept higher” until it was “breaking” on the shore “by her.”
During the moments that the western part of the sky held the setting sun, the “foam” from the sea was coming up around her feet. It continued to grow. The speaker jumps from the beach to the “door” at home Jessie should’ve entered, but will no more. She’s never going to come home again. A reader should take note of the use of repetition in this line and how it emphasizes the already dramatic turn of events.
They stood together on the strand,
They only, each by each;
Home, her home, was close at hand,
Utterly out of reach.
Her mother in the chimney nook
Heard a startled sea-gull screech,
But never turned her head to look
Towards the darkening beach:
Neighbors here and neighbors there
Heard one scream, as if a bird
Shrilly screaming cleft the air:–
That was all they heard.
Th next lines bounce back and forth between the tragic death of Jessie Cameron and the larger landscape. Rossetti’s speaker makes sure to emphasize the fact that the two are alone on the beach. This means there are no witnesses to tell later of what actually transpired between the two. A fact which leads to all the rumours included in the fifth stanza.
Additionally, the speaker stresses how close to home Jessie was. A reader should feel for her, and the frustration of being “close at hand” to safety but “Utterly out of reach.” At the moment that Jessie died her mother was in “the chimney nook.” She did not look out towards the “darkening beach” when she heard a seagull “shriek,” or at least what she thought was a seagull. The neighbours head the same thing, but took it to be a bird as well.
Jessie she comes home no more,
Comes home never;
Her lover’s step sounds at his door
No more forever.
And boats may search upon the sea
And search along the river,
But none know where the bodies be:
Sea-winds that shiver,
Sea-birds that breast the blast,
Keep the secret first and last
Of their dwelling.
There is a great deal of repetition in the eighth stanza, giving it the rhythm of a song or chant. The speaker repeats over and over that “never” will she come home again and “never” again. It is also revealed in this line that something happened to the neighbour’s son as well. His feet will never sound “at his door” again.
After their disappearance, the boats searched “upon the sea” but found nothing. No one knows where the bodies are. In the last lines of eighth stanza the speaker states that the sea winds, birds, and waves are the only things which can tell “Of their dwelling.”
Whether the tide so hemmed them round
With its pitiless flow,
That when they would have gone they found
No way to go;
Whether she scorned him to the last
With words flung to and fro,
Or clung to him when hope was past,
None will ever know:
Whether he helped or hindered her,
Threw up his life or lost it well,
The troubled sea, for all its stir,
Finds no voice to tell.
In the ninth stanza of ‘Jessie Cameron’ the speaker wonders over what exactly happened to the two. They think that maybe “the tide” rose so quickly that when they realized they needed to go, it was too late. Then, adding onto that theory, maybe, “she scorned him to the last” and decided to cling “to him when hope was past.” This just shows how unsure those who heard of these disappearance were about their details.
In the last five lines of the ninth stanza the speaker wonders if he “helped or hindered her.” Maybe, he killed himself in the process of killing her, or maybe accidentally lost it as he attempted to save her. Even though the sea was moaning throughout this piece, it does not tell. It has “not voice” to do so.
Only watchers by the dying
Have thought they heard one pray,
Wordless, urgent; and replying,
One seem to say him nay:
And watchers by the dead have heard
A windy swell from miles away,
With sobs and screams, but not a word
Distinct for them to say:
And watchers out at sea have caught
Glimpse of a pale gleam here or there,
Come and gone as quick as thought,
Which might be hand or hair.
In the last twelve lines Christina Rossetti writes rhythmically of what “watchers” may or may not have seen. Maybe, some “heard one prayer,” that sounded “urgent.” Others, think they heard the sounds of “sobs and screams, but not a word.” These sounds were maybe carried to them on the wind. It was impossible to make out whether or not there were words included.
Last, she adds that there were “watches out a sea” who think they “caught / Glimpse of a pale gleam.” This gleam was nothing beautiful, instead, likely a “hand or hair” being flung about by the waves.