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Prayer for the week

14 November 2014

Hester Jones looks ahead to Advent with a sonnet of Christina Rossetti

Anglican poet: Christina Rossetti

Anglican poet: Christina Rossetti

Lord, Thou Thyself art Love and only Thou; Yet I who am not love would fain love Thee; But Thou alone being Love canst furnish me
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 tire,
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 Christina Rossetti

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 love.

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.

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