Soeur Louise De La Misericorde 1674 by Christina Rossetti

A great many artists take their inspiration from the world around them, in the form of other people’s stories and experiences. After all, there’s far too much to see and do in the world for a single person to do it all, and it’s easy to listen to the stories of others and revere or revile them, depending on the circumstances. Christina Rossetti was one poet who listened to the stories of history and found inspiration in them. Soeur Louise De La Misericorde 1674 (though it sometimes appears without 1674 in the title) is one of her poems that reflects this, exploring the historic narrative of Louise de La Vallière, a duchess in France in the seventeenth century. Rossetti uses this story as a means of exploring the nature of desire, vanity, and aging in such ways as Rossetti herself likely could not have without the story of another to guide her.


Soeur Louise De La Misericorde 1674 Analysis

I have desired, and I have been desired;

But now the days are over of desire,

Now dust and dying embers mock my fire;

Where is the hire for which my life was hired?

Oh vanity of vanities, desire!

Soeur Louise De La Misericorde utilizes a fairly unconventional verse structure, where each verse is five lines long and rhymes in an ABAAB pattern (except for the last verse, in which all lines rhyme with one another). Immediately, it is clear that this first verse is emphasizing desire as a central theme, considering the high repetition of the word; two of the rhyming lines are actually the word “desire,” which makes for something of an awkward rhyme. In fact, “awkward” wouldn’t be a bad way to describe this worse. The second line, “But now the days are over of desire,” might just be the most awkward means possible of expressing this sentiment. And yet, the following line speaks of dust and dying embers, an elegant metaphor for something ending, suggesting that the speaker is wondering whether they can ever be desirable again, and whether or not their vanity can accept this either way.

The awkward phrasing and rhyming of the verse gives it something of a disjointed feel; the speaker almost appears to be trying to create melodrama over their situation. The final two lines in particular see the speaker seemingly questioning the purpose of their life, and then immediately chiding their own perspective and saying that they are being vain in wanting to be desired.

Longing and love, pangs of a perished pleasure,

Longing and love, a disenkindled fire,

And memory a bottomless gulf of mire,

And love a fount of tears outrunning measure;

Oh vanity of vanities, desire!

The second verse follows a similar beat to the first one, replacing “desire” with “longing and love.” The metaphor of fire appears again, as does the theme of wasting a life — except instead of the “hire for life,” this time it’s “a bottomless gulf of mire.” Many of these repeated themes suggest that more than shallow desire for the admiration of others, the speaker is recounting a lost love. The implication seems to be that now that love is ended, they feel as though there is nothing in life to sustain them, and that they have wasted every moment they spent loving.

The final line is repeated from the same place it was in the first verse, and adds a note of conflict to the work. Despite the words used to convey clear and heartfelt sorrow, the repetition of this phrase suggests that there is still conflict over whether or not any of those heartfelt feelings should be heartfelt; is this genuine sadness over a lost love, or a more shallow lament for vanities now gone?

Now from my heart, love’s deathbed, trickles, trickles,

Drop by drop slowly, drop by drop of fire,

The dross of life, of love, of spent desire;

Alas, my rose of life gone all to prickles,–

Oh vanity of vanities, desire!

The central image for the third verse of the poem is a rose, described in great detail as withering slowly, to become a stem with sharp points only, signalling the change from something beautiful into something that serves no purpose except for accidental pain. The metaphor of fire, signalling desire and life, is also used here and works alongside the much more peaceful image of a rose to contribute to the theme of inner conflict, once again resounded in the repeated final line. The language used continues to be overly elegant — the “dross” of life, for instance — and contrasts strongly with the awkward phrasing of lines such as “Now from my heart, love’s deathbed, trickles, trickles.”

Oh vanity of vanities, desire;

Stunting my hope which might have strained up higher,

Turning my garden plot to barren mire;

Oh death-struck love, oh disenkindled fire,

Oh vanity of vanities, desire!

The concluding verse brings together all of the themes previously present in the poem into a fitting conclusion. This verse speaks of stunted hopes and dead gardens, two images that encompass the rose imagery from the previous verse as well as invoking the fire metaphor to describe love struck by death. It concludes the poem without informing much in the way of overarching meaning, but continues to use the same word choices to create a sense of conflict and confusion within the speaker about such themes as aging, loss of beauty, vanity, and even, perhaps, coming of age, as the narrator laments what is clearly the end of an important aspect of their life.


Historical Context

The date within the title of the poem, 1674, along with the phrase “Soeur Louise,” which can be translated from French into “Sister Louise,” suggests heavily that this poem is about Louise de La Vallière, who was the Duchess of La Vallière, a position invented by Louis XIV of France, with whom she had an affair for some time. The French King’s infidelity became known a few years after it began, and Louise was forced to live in an extremely hostile environment within the French courts, even after the affair ended. She bore several children by Louis XIV, one of whom was legitimized by royal decree into the monarchy. As time went on, however, Louise found herself losing favour in the royal courts, especially by her lover, who had found a different mistress to spend time with.

Rather than letting Louise leave, the King chose to use her to conceal his new affair. Since news of his affair with Louise was common knowledge, he allowed her to accompany him whenever he sought to spend time with his new mistress, hoping the people around him would believe he was simply returning to an old flame. This was extremely difficult on her; she began to lose her beauty and miscarried her final pregnancy before 1671, when she attempted to flee the King, but was caught and returned to him. Three years later, in 1674, she joined the Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, under the name “Sister Louise of Mercy” — the English translation for the title of this poem.

With this in mind, it is likely that Rossetti wrote this poem by trying to imagine the mindset of Sister Louise after she had been flaunted around by her former lover and his current mistress and allowed, at least, to flee to a convent, to atone for her sins by the Roman Catholic Church. Rossetti herself was well educated and while it is unclear how she happened upon Sister Louise’s story or why it was important to her, it is clear that it was, as she had clearly put a great deal of effort into representing this historic narrative to add to her works.

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