The Poor Ghost by Christina Rossetti is a 9 stanza poem, each stanza is made up of four lines. The rhyme scheme of the poem is AAAA BBBB CCCC… continuing on until the last stanza repeats BBBB. This poem is a conversation between a man and his female lover, come back from the dead. He questions her appearance, and she responds, telling him he will know death soon. He shows fear of death and the woman begins to question his love for her. He responds explaining that he did love her but that love ends at death. At the end of The Poor Ghost, the female spirit is resolved to sleep in her grave until judgment day in which she will see her lover again.
The Poor Ghost Analysis
‘Oh whence do you come, my dear friend, to me,
With your golden hair all fallen below your knee,
And your face as white as snowdrops on the lea,
And your voice as hollow as the hollow sea?’
The Poor Ghost begins with a question that lasts the entire first stanza. The first line has the narrator addressing a “dear friend,” to whom she asks, “whence do you come…to me” or in modern English, where do you come from? The next three lines describe the appearance of the “dear friend.” Her hair is long, falling below the knee. Rossetti describes her face as being “white as snowdrops on the lea,” a snow covered field or open grassy area. Next, she transitions to an auditory description of the friend’s voice, and it’s hollowness. The word hollow is repeated twice in the fourth line of The Poor Ghost for emphasis.
‘From the other world I come back to you,
My locks are uncurled with dripping drenching dew.
You know the old, whilst I know the new:
But to-morrow you shall know this too.’
The second stanza of The Poor Ghost is a response to the first. The “dear friend” answers the question posed by the original narrator. The friend explains that “whence,” presumably she, comes, it’s from “the other world.” The other world came to be interpreted as being some form of the afterlife, and the “dear friend” as a spirit that has come to commune with the narrator, someone they knew in a previous life. The friend addresses the narrator explaining that they now “know the new,” they know the world to come, what the next life is like, while the narrator knows the old, what every living person knows. The last line is a premonition, stating that tomorrow the narrator will know the “new” as well.
‘Oh not to-morrow into the dark, I pray;
Oh not to-morrow, too soon to go away:
Here I feel warm and well-content and gay:
Give me another year, another day.’
This third stanza is fairly straightforward, and is a response to the previous prediction. The narrator expresses fear of “go[ing] away,” of leaving the world that he knows and entering a new one, or more simply, he is afraid of dying and is hoping for a way out. He pleads with her friend for more time, “another year, another day.”
‘Am I so changed in a day and a night
That mine own only love shrinks from me with fright,
Is fain to turn away to left or right
And cover up his eyes from the sight?’
Another response, this time from the dear friend is given in this stanza. The friend is upset that the narrator is expressing fear at the prospect of dying and entering the afterlife. The friend asks if she is so different, having only been dead for a day and a night, than when she was alive. She wants to know, am I not the same as I used to be? Or, as she stipulates, am I so changed that “my own only love shrinks from me with fright…” Not only does the friend think the narrator is “shrink[ing] in fright” but that he is “fain to turn away…” Meaning, happy to avoid looking at the spirit. It now becomes clear that the narrator is male, and that the “dear friend” is female, as well as the fact that they were lovers.
‘Indeed I loved you, my chosen friend,
I loved you for life, but life has an end;
Through sickness I was ready to tend:
But death mars all, which we cannot mend.
In stanza five of The Poor Ghost, once more, the narrator responds to the female spirit he once loved. He recommits to the love he once felt for her, and the fact that no matter what happened in life he would have continued to. But he makes clear that the spirit’s life is now over, death “mars” or impairs the quality or all. There is he says, nothing they can do to mend their relationship, death has ended it.
‘Indeed I loved you; I love you yet,
If you will stay where your bed is set,
Where I have planted a violet,
Which the wind waves, which the dew makes wet.’
The narrator continues once again, emphasizing the love he felt for the spirit so she may be sure of it. He says he will continue to love her if she stays where “your bed is set,” or more simply, in the grave where your body was put to rest. The narrator then makes this clear by describing his placement of a violet upon her grave and the forces of nature that have acted upon it.
‘Life is gone, then love too is gone,
It was a reed that I leant upon:
Never doubt I will leave you alone
And not wake you rattling bone with bone.
The female spirit replies saying that there is no use in your love if life is gone. She is giving up on her previous desire to tempt him into the afterlife, seeing now that their love cannot survive death. She vows that she will leave him alone and not come to him as a ghost any longer.
‘I go home alone to my bed,
Dug deep at the foot and deep at the head,
Roofed in with a load of lead,
Warm enough for the forgotten dead.
She continues to describe her “bed,” or grave, how it is dug deep and “roofed…with lead.” She sees herself as being forgotten, and her grave as an apt place for a lost lover.
‘But why did your tears soak through the clay,
And why did your sobs wake me where I lay?
I was away, far enough away:
Let me sleep now till the Judgment Day.’
The last stanza of The Poor Ghost is spoken once again by the spirit, she wonders why she was awoken by his tears if all of this was for nothing? She was “far enough away” that she should not have been. At this point, she has resolved herself to wait to see her lover until judgment day. She will sleep until that point.
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, publishing her first poems in 1848 when she was 18. Her most famous collection, Goblin Market and Other Poems, was published in 1862 and was widely praised, with, of course, contained the poem Goblin Market. 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. As well as being known for her writing, her political and social beliefs increased her image. She was openly opposed to slavery, which was still 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.