‘The World’ by Christina Rossetti is a fourteen-line sonnet that is contained within one block of text. As is traditional with Petrarchan/Italian sonnets, ‘The World’ is separated into one set of eight lines, or octave and one set of six, or sestet. In these sonnets the octave almost always follows a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA while the sestet can change depending on the poet’s needs. In this case, Rossetti chose to use CDCEDE, one of the less common concluding patterns.
The meter is also very constant and in line with what one would expect from a Petrarchan/Italian sonnet. It follows a pattern of iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed.
One interesting choice Rossetti made while structuring this piece was the use of varied indention. Upon looking closely at the text it is clear that the indention matches up with the end rhyme. All the ‘B’ rhymes in the octave are indented in.
She treated the sestet similarly, this time the ‘D’ rhymes are indented and the ‘C’ and ‘E’ rhymes are in line. Rossetti likely decided to format the poem this way in order to give it added interest on the page. It also forces a reader’s eye back and forth, enhancing the rhythmic effect created by the distribution of the end sounds.
Summary of The World
The poem begins with the speaker stating that during the day the world “woos” her. She is taken in by the softness and fairness, or beauty, of the scenes. Then night comes and everything changes. The landscape is transformed and she is confronted with everything “Loathsome and foul.” Snakes glide through the scenes before her and it is not until the day dawns again that she feels safe.
The next quatrain presents a similar image. The day is beautiful, filled with “sweet flowers” and “Ripe fruits.” While the night is a place of nothingness. There is no prayer and there is no joy. In the last six lines of the text, the turn occurs. The speaker describes how after looking at the situation from afar she has come to the conclusion that day is the falsehood. It is nothing but a front put on by the darkness in order to draw one into temptation.
Analysis of The World
By day she woos me, soft, exceeding fair:
But all night as the moon so changeth she;
Loathsome and foul with hideous leprosy
And subtle serpents gliding in her hair.
In the first lines of this piece, the speaker begins by referring to a woman. This female being, who is never actually named, is “the world.” She is speaking about the planet as a whole as well as her own local environments. Rossetti’s speaker states that during the day the world “woos” her. “She” is “soft” and “fair” whenever the sun is up. That changes at night though. The world she knew in the light disappears and an entirely new one takes over.
When the moon rises and changes the sky, so too “changeth she.” This is a comparison that is very familiar, night and day are inherently opposite, but Rossetti decided to speak on them in a somewhat unusual way.
As is traditional, the night is portrayed as a time of malevolence. The entire world is “loathsome” and “foul” It seems ridden with “leprosy / And subtle serpents.” This is the first moment in which a reader might relate ‘The World’ to the book of Genesis in the Bible. The mention of snakes has led many to interpret this piece as commenting on Eden and the choices made by Adam and Eve.
By day she woos me to the outer air,
Ripe fruits, sweet flowers, and full satiety:
But through the night, a beast she grins at me,
A very monster void of love and prayer.
In the next four lines, she goes on to present two more images of night and day. The first two lines are dedicated to day and the second set to night. Once again Rossetti uses the word “woos.” This second usage emphasizes the manipulative nature of the daytime. Rossetti’s speaker is drawn into the vision of day through the “Ripe fruits” and feelings of “satiety.” She is fully sated, at least at first, by what she sees.
Then the night comes again and presents a terrible image. This initially only enhances her love for the day. She is forced to deal with “a beast” of a world. There are no more fruits or “sweet flowers.” Now she must confront a place “void of love and prayer.” These first two quatrains have set out the speaker’s initial impressions of the world. It can be two very different places at different times of day.
By day she stands a lie: by night she stands
In all the naked horror of the truth
With pushing horns and clawed and clutching hands.
Is this a friend indeed; that I should sell
My soul to her, give her my life and youth,
Till my feet, cloven too, take hold on hell?
The following six lines finish the poem with a somewhat surprising conclusion. There is a distinct separation between the first half of the poem and the second. The transition between the two parts is known as the turn, or volta. In the case of ‘The World’ Rossetti changes the meaning of the poem by providing additional details that alter the preceding octave.
She begins by stating that the daytime is a lie. Everything that the speaker, and everyone else experiences, from the flowers to the fruits is put on. It is the night that is the truth. It is “naked” and horrible and to the speaker, much more honest. The hours which are filled with dread of “pushing horns” and sin are what’s truly real in the world. The tempting hours of day represent temptation that is too easy to give in to. The speaker was almost drawn in, as Adam and Eve were, to the temptation of “Ripe fruits.” She knows now that she doesn’t want to give herself to the erotic pleasures of daytime.
The final lines form a rhetorical question. Rossetti’s speaker is predicting what the future would look like if she gave into day’s temptations. Eventually, she’d end up with “cloven” feet like the devil, and be pulled straight into hell.