Lord, Thou Thyself art Love and only Thou; Yet I who am
not love would fain love Thee; But Thou alone being Love canst
With that same love my heart is craving now. Allow
my plea! for if Thou disallow,
No second fountain can I find but Thee;
No second hope or help is left to me,
No second anything, but only Thou.
O Love accept, according my request;
O Love exhaust, fulfilling my desire:
Uphold me with the strength that cannot
Nerve me to labour till Thou bid me rest, Kindle
my fire from Thine unkindled fire, And charm the willing heart from
out my breast.
From "Later Life: A Double Sonnet of Sonnets" by
AS ITS title suggests, Christina Rossetti (1830-94) wrote the
sequence of sonnets from which this prayer comes towards the end of
her life. John Donne had compared the "little room" of the sonnet
with the brief term of Christ's life on earth, and this poem
similarly uses the sonnet form, deriving as it does from Petrarch's
Canzoniere, to explore with some depth and complexity the
relation between the soul and God.
From its start, the prayer voices the speaker's sense of
personal unworthiness, and yet also reiterates an ardent confidence
in God's love and its power to transform the self, despite the
fearfulness Rossetti often articulates. Elizabeth Jennings, who was
to be influenced by Rossetti's poetry, would later write in her
poem "The Nature of Prayer" that "our homes Of prayer are shaky
and, yes, parts of Hell Fragment the depths from which the great
cry comes." Rossetti, likewise, draws on an understanding of the
language of poetic prayer as fragile, using repetition in
particular, especially in the opening quatrain. It imagines,
furthermore, how God might refuse its plea, by means of a series of
anaphoric negations ("no second fountain", and so on).
None the less, it also persistently seeks a strength that is not
confined to temporal succession ("No second anything, but only
Thou") ; and the volta that marks the end of the octave
and a shift to a different focus moves from an address that
imagines God as "Lord" to one that apostrophises "Love" it- self,
and enables the poem to make a more assured invocation of
forgiveness and mercy.
Such love is paradoxical, both empty- ing and fulfilling the
self. Words such as "exhaust" and "tire" still suggest a lassitude;
but in its last lines the prayer also seems to accept the sonnet's
evocation of desire, and expresses a new direction as well. In
place of regular iambic stresses, several lines use trochees (for
example, the words "Nerve me" and "Kindle"), which convey a new
vigour and hope.
The phrase "Nerve me to labour" suggests through that surprising
word "nerve" that the speaker understands her vulnerability, her
nerviness, as even an opportunity for God's transforming strength
and "nerve" to be experienced. The last line, with its return to an
iambic metre, also reassures the reader that the invocations in the
sestet have been heard and accepted by God. The prayer thus signals
at this point a new inward power, a willingness to wait and to be
attentive to God's response to and amidst our sense of need.
As we approach the end of the Church's year and look ahead to
Advent, with its emphasis on such attentiveness, this prayer may
perhaps "nerve" us, its readers, to such an attitude as well. It
reminds us of love's call to hope amidst darkness, that within such
darkness our hearts may be indeed touched and kindled by God's
The Revd Dr Hester Jones is Senior Lecturer in English at
Bristol University, and Vicar of Abbots Leigh with Leigh Woods, in
the diocese of Bristol.