‘Some ladies dress in muslin full and white’ by Christina Rossetti is a fourteen-line sonnet that is contained within one block of text. The lines conform to the pattern of a traditional Petrarchan or Italian sonnet. This means that they can be divided into one set of eight lines, or octet, and one set of six lines, or sestet. The octave can be further divided into two quatrains.
As is customary within Petrarchan sonnets the first eight lines follow a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA. The next six can diverge into any number of patterns. In the case of ‘Some ladies dress in muslin full and white’ they rhyme CDEECD. This is a very unusual pattern for a Petrarchan sonnet. In regards to the rhythm, the lines are written in iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats, or syllables. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed.
Another technique that Rossetti makes use of is anaphora. This is the intentional repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. The first four lines are a perfect example of this occurring. Rossetti utilized the word “Some” four times in a row, emphasizing how “Some” people act this way, but not everyone.
In the first three lines, the speaker sets out a few different scenarios for how the wealthy act. Some ride in expensive carriages and wear pricey and high-quality clothes. They believe that a “painted clarence,” or painted, four-wheeled, six-person carriage, is the only way to travel. She is passing judgment on these men and women and their fancy clothes.
In the next lines, she describes another contingent, those who go against the grain in a different way. These include women who do not act femininely and men who dress with the express purpose of attracting attention. These are youthful people who offend the speaker.
In the final lines the speaker daydreams over what it would be like to watch the young, old, and rich drown in a world made of water. She’d rather poke them over the edge, watch them sink, and then drown than teach them how to swim.
Some ladies dress in muslin full and white,
Some gentlemen in cloth succinct and black;
Some patronise a dog-cart, some a hack,
Some think a painted clarence only right.
In the first lines of this piece, the speaker sets out a number of features of her world that she has issues with. First, she brings to the reader’s attention that there are “Some ladies” who care so much about their appearance that they’ll dress in “muslin full and white. “ They likely wore multiple layers of the thin fabric so that the dresses appeared “full.”
She also mentions the gentlemen. They are dressed in simple black cloth. She describes their clothes as being “succinct.” This means they are cleanly dressed, with all parts of their clothes properly tucked and or arranged. Both men and women have a contingent who “patronise” or use, “a dog-cart” or “a hack.” A dog-cart is a two-wheeled horse-drawn cart that was originally invented to allow for space for hunting dogs. This clearly places it in the realm of the upper classes. In contrast, she presents the “hack.” This is a word used to refer to a single horse with a rider. While not as expensive as a cart, the horse also symbolizes wealth.
In the last line, she refers to one final mode of transportation, the “clarence.” This appears to be the most expensive of all the examples. It is a closed carriage that runs on four wheels and seats a total of six people. This particular clarence is painted, increasing its worth even more.
Youth is not always such a pleasing sight,
Witness a man with tassels on his back;
Or woman in a great-coat like a sack
Towering above her sex with horrid height.
In the next set of four lines, she refers to Youth” and how it is “not always… a pleasing sight.” The speaker clearly has a number of issues with the people of the younger generation. She looks down on them as being indulgent, gluttonous, and vain.
The speaker of ‘Some ladies dress in muslin full and white’ provides a few examples, in addition to those in the first four lines, that turn her off of other people. She does not like to see “a man with tassels on his back.” A gentleman would dress like this, perhaps in a uniform, for a special occasion. It could be a wedding, funeral, or any other ceremony.
She also calls out the women who “tower” over all others while wearing “a great-coat like a sack.” This is a simple reference to a long and probably heavy overcoat. It’s not entirely clear why Rossetti’s speaker has an issue with this coat. It could be because of the way it emphasizes the woman’s height, making her less the feminine object of admiration that society usually deems appropriate.
If all the world were water fit to drown
There are some whom you would not teach to swim,
Rather enjoying if you saw them sink;
Certain old ladies dressed in girlish pink,
With roses and geraniums on their gown: —
Go to the Bason, poke them o’er the rim. —
In the next set of lines, the speaker is very clear in her condemnation of everyone she doesn’t understand. She creates a scenario in which the world was entirely water. If this was the case, everyone would need to know how to swim. The speaker so dislikes these people that she mentioned that she’d put them on a list of those “you would not teach to swim.”
Without obfuscation, she describes how she’d rather they drown than continue on living. Her harsh sentence for those different than herself proceeds into the next lines. She describes how this vague “you” which is clearly a reference to herself, would enjoy watching “them sink”
The final three lines bring up another type of person that Rossetti’s speaker disapproves of. “Old ladies” who dress in the wrong age group. They wear “girlish pink” as if they are still girls and not old women. These women also have flowers on their own.
In the last lines of ‘Some ladies dress in muslin full and white’ she expresses her desire to go to the “Bason” or basin and “poke” these women “o’er the rim” and into the water where they can drown. The word “Bason” which is an old-fashioned alternate spelling of basin, is usually used within the Church of England. This increases the possibility that all these different people she is observing are in the same place, in church, or on the way to church.