Birds, Bees and Waste in Christina Rossetti’s Nature Poetry
a guest-blog by Clara Dawson, Lecturer in Victorian Literature at the University of Manchester. She is currently working on a project about birds and poetry from 1790 to the present. Twitter @DawsonClara. The blog is illustrated throughout by images taken from Rossetti's 'Sing Song': a volume of 121 nursery rhymes which she illustrated throughout with nature images, particularly of birds.
‘Honey of wild bees in their ordered cells
Stored, not for human mouths to taste: –
I said, smiling superior down: What waste
Of good, where no man dwells’
Christina Rossetti, ‘To What Purpose is this Waste?’
The recent overturn of the ban on neo-nicotinoids, a bee-killing pesticide, brings a bitter resonance to the words of Christina Rossetti, written in 1853. Though she could hardly have anticipated the detail, her vision of an earth which stands ‘ashamed and dumb’ because it is ‘exposed and valued at [man’s] worth’ seems to predict human destruction of the natural world that followed in the wake of industrial development. In the last year, the value of the natural world has come to the fore, together with a clearer appreciation of how human activities continue to undermine it as a functioning home for ourselves and other species. Lockdown dismantled networks of anthropogenic noise to reveal the soundscapes of the natural world and the dawn chorus filled our streets and gardens once more.
Birds visiting our gardens do not serve an economic purpose, but bring pleasure, curiosity, respite, and beauty. How might we learn as a society to put these gifts before profit? In silencing human noise, the Covid-19 pandemic created an opportunity to rediscover the emotional and psychological benefits of seeing and hearing other creatures. But how might poetry written in the nineteenth century, under the same dominant system of industrial capitalism, help us with these ethical challenges? In ‘To What Purpose is This Waste’, Rossetti dramatizes the arrogance and folly of supposed human superiority to plants and animals. The honey produced by the bees for themselves can only be imagined as waste if we think that human consumption is the natural goal of all production. Rossetti outlines how we often look down on small and seemingly insignificant creatures, like birds and insects. But in a vision offered by religious experience, the poet learns to silence her ‘proud tongue’ and instead listen to the sounds and murmurs of hedges and rivers, which ‘swell’ to ‘one loud hymn’. In order to change, she moves deeper into the countryside and re-orients her senses to ‘behold/ All hidden things’ and to hear ‘all secret whisperings’. Perhaps for the first time in a long time, those ‘secret whisperings’ have been heard in towns and cities across the UK, when noises from transport and construction were reduced and birdsong filled the air. We were able to experience what had been drowned out by cars, planes, trains, our busy trafficking to and fro. Rossetti’s vision of the ‘utter Love’ found in a natural world without human interference is ultimately founded on Christianity, where God is both presence and cause. Though her firm Christian belief is less persuasive today, her poetry offers a response to the urgent challenges facing plants and animals – including ourselves – under threat from the climate crisis.
A key ethical problem for conservation scientists is to solidify the reasons that we defend and promote conservation. It is clear that in saving other species, we save ourselves, but there is also an ethical claim that requires us to recognise the rights of plants and animals to thrive. It is possible to find ways that humans and other species can flourish together but what might be necessary to persuade us to give up on putting ourselves first? Nature currently has to live with us, adapting to our needs and demands, but it will only thrive if we recognise and respect interconnection and integration rather than human dominance.
Christina Rossetti’s poem invites us to reflect on the utilitarian way in which we see nature, protesting against the belief that ‘as if a nightingale should cease to sing/ Lest we should hear.’ Poetry has a unique capacity to act on us emotionally through its sounds and images and Rossetti uses poetic language to heighten the beauty of the ordinary. Her poem opens with two compelling images:
A windy shell singing upon the shore:
A lily budding in a desert place;
With no companion
To praise its perfect perfume and its grace:
The alliteration of ‘s’ in the first line performs the singing sounds of the windy shell, the short second and third lines single out the lone beauty of the lily, and the rhyme of ‘place’ and ‘grace’ magnify the beauty that exists without human presence. She describes ‘Wondrous weeds and blossoms rare’ as ‘good and fair’: again the alliteration of ‘w’ and the rhyme of ‘rare’ and ‘fair’ create beautiful and appealing sounds, enabling Rossetti to draw our attention to the small and insignificant. ‘The tiniest living thing/ That soars on feathered wing’ has ‘just as good a right…as any King’, disrupting human hierarchies. The word ‘soars’ gives power and beauty to this tiny bird, and the rhyme of ‘thing’ and ‘wing’ creates a harmonious sound which solidifies its right to delight. Having invited us to appreciate the beauty on offer, the poem’s ethical questions land with greater force: ‘Why should we grudge a hidden water stream/ To birds and squirrels while we have enough?’