Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Christina Rossetti: 'In the Round Tower at Jhansi, June 8, 1857'

The Jhansi Fort

Events in India during 1857-58 have proved so contentious that even naming them has caused difficulty. Was there a mutiny, an uprising, a rebellion, an insurrection, a war? Indian, or merely sepoy? Wikipedia refers to the 'Indian Rebellion of 1857', whereas Gautam Chakravarty's study of its effects on the British imagination prefers 'Indian Mutiny'.

Writing three or four decades after the violence, Rudyard Kipling referred frequently to the rising as an unforgettable trauma in Anglo-Indian relations. One of his greatest stories, 'The Undertakers', has the Mugger crocodile feeling nostalgic for the rich harvest of that year: 'I got my girth in that season---my girth and my depth'. The Mugger remembers how he 'lay still in the slack-water and let twenty [bodies] go by to pick one; and, above all, the English were not cumbered with jewellery and nose-rings and anklets as my women are nowadays.' When the supply of English corpses stops, the river is empty for a while: 'Then came one or two dead, in red coats, not English, but of one kind all---Hindus and Purbeeahs---then five and six abreast, and at last, from Arrah to the North beyond Agra, it was as though whole villages had walked into the water.'

Here is Christina Rossetti's Indian Mutiny poem, first published in her Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862):

In the Round Tower at Jhansi, June 8, 1857

A hundred, a thousand to one: even so;
  Not a hope in the world remained:
The swarming howling wretches below
  Gained and gained and gained.

Skene looked at his pale young wife.
  ‘Is the time come?’—‘The time is come.’
Young, strong, and so full of life,
  The agony struck them dumb.

Close his arm about her now,
  Close her cheek to his,
Close the pistol to her brow—
  God forgive them this!

‘Will it hurt much?’ ‘No, mine own:
  I wish I could bear the pang for both.’—
‘I wish I could bear the pang alone:
  Courage, dear, I am not loth.’

Kiss and kiss: ‘It is not pain
  Thus to kiss and die.
One kiss more.’—‘And yet one again.’—

Rossetti appended a footnote in 1875: 'I retain this little poem, not as historically accurate, but as written and published before I heard the supposed facts of its first verse contradicted.' She had discovered (or thought she had discovered) that, far from committing suicide, the Skene family had been captured and killed. There is still no consensus as to their fate. Here is one rather melodramatic Victorian view of the Skenes' demise:


  1. The silence is deafening. Since no one else is commenting, I'll bite... A rose is a rose but not a Rosetti. No floral wreaths or laurels here. The only line worth pondering is the title; would that there were a suitable poem with it.

  2. I wouldn't disagree with your assessment, Ed. Christina Rossetti wrote better poems than this one. I strongly recommend the Kipling story.

  3. I think 'Goblin Market' itself chimes with this poem - the 'goblins' obviously have resonances as depictions of maleness, but to my mind they are manifestations of the Victorian 'other' - instinctive, urgent, sexualised and sensual, their fruit from the 'south'. The symbolic defilement of Lizzie even describes her in terms of a metaphorical 'tower' being 'beseiged' as I recall....How about her Franco-Prussian War poem 'To-Day For Me'?

  4. Personally I believe that this is one of Rossetti's stronger works, if perhaps less well known, because of the emotion it leaves the reader in and the way she seems to have frozen time and picked out a single moment in the couple's story. It leaves some work to the imagination of the reader, but rather than simply leaving them as victims like her other works, it gives them a sense of martyrdom and a final respect. I think this a beautiful little snapshot of a story.

  5. I would agree with Anonymous the Rosetti poem may not be literally accurate but it give a feeling of real people and events in the Mutiny and brings it into the emotional here and now as no amount of accurate reporting ever can. In those few lines I can feel the terror and panic of the people involved and equate it to a 21st Century terror attack. The rights and wrongs of it not being relevant here simply how, it felt to those involved.

  6. A late addition to this interesting blog. The poem was first published in "Once a Week" (August 13th, 1859) under the name "Caroline G. Rossetti. In this version Skene had his name anonymised: "S------".
    I agree with Anonymous: the power of the poem is nothing to do with the (admittedly inaccurate) historical setting, but the intimacy and tenderness she captures - and the closeness between the pair that makes it impossible to assign voices to the dialogue in the last stanza.

  7. Indeed, the poem first appeared in "Once a Week", where Skene is simply S_____. But there is a much bigger omission - the entire third verse - which removes any obvious reference to suicide. I suspect the editor ordered its removal, deemed inappropriate in a journal intended for family reading.