I was six years old when I first read Christina’s Rossetti’s Hurt No Living Thing, first in class, then in front of parents in the school assembly. When Mrs Griffiths told everyone how I had only stumbled on the word “gnat”, I was the picture of pride in short pants. Some years later, looking for this childrens’ poem online, I found it. It is short and outwardly very simple, and runs thus:
Hurt no living thing:
Ladybird, nor butterfly,
Nor moth with dusty wing,
Nor cricket chirping cheerily,
Nor grasshopper so light of leap,
Nor dancing gnat, nor beetle fat,
Nor harmless worms that creep.
I noticed the comments beneath it, some of which were complimentary. Others said things like “What about her gut flora and pathogens after infections?” or “So I guess she lived on dirt, hair and toenail clippings.”
There is a curious commonality between this and the recent Twitter storm as first Caroline Criado-Perez and then Stella Creasy became victims of persistent, gut-wrenchingly foul abuse, the first following her successful campaign to have more women put on banknotes, the second when she sprang to the other’s defence.
Lest we forget, the individuals who sent the abusive tweets, though they were a deluge for one person to face, are but a minority of a minority of the online community. I imagine most people who heard this story were to a greater or lesser degree as dumbstruck, outraged and depressed as I was. Indeed as much was demonstrated by the overwhelming outpouring of supporting and solidarity extended to Criado, Creasy and others caught in the crossfire. But what has this to do with Rossetti or her poetry?
Although at opposite ends of the spectrum, both suggest the same cultural dissonance. One merely bespeaks of a pedantic, rather literal emphasis, which sees something at face value and reads into it only a small part of its meaning. If Rossetti had been coding in C sharp (a computer language) the point may have been valid. The other, I grant you, crashes through the basement into the cravenly sordid. Yet I could discern in both the same want of empathy, that ethical wellspring that might otherwise deliver us from evil. If we do unto others as we would have them do unto us, not because it wins friends or keeps us on the right side of the law, but because we suffer on others’ behalf, we are immediately kinder, better people.
I imagine Rossetti understood well that children are a good audience for poetry, both because their minds are unformed, and can be shaped positively by exposure to beauty, but also because they see the world with new and fresh eyes. They can be marked and moulded by lyricism in a way that is diminished as the clay tablet sets. We are all aware of how powerfully vivid and mysterious our childhood impressions were compared to those we receive today. When I think of the poem, I am suffused by a recollection of colour and sense that is usually reserved for music. The poem does not seek to tell us why we should not hurt any other living thing. Instead its interest is in portraying what Gerard Manley Hopkins would have termed ‘inscape’, the secret beauty of the world around us. We think of the ‘chirp’ and ‘creep’ and somewhere below our surface mind, we experience something akin to spiritual rapture.
The sister of Pre-Raphaelite artist Gabriel Dante Rossetti, Christina’s life was marked by what was expected of women up to the nineteenth century and beyond. Remarkably, Rossetti emerged in spite of being pinioned socially and intellectually by the society she lived in. In one poem she compares her development towards womanhood with that of an Italian friend, Enrica:
We Englishwomen, trim, correct,
All minted in the selfsame mould,
Warm-hearted but of semblance cold,
All-courteous out of self-respect.
She, woman in her natural grace,
Less trammelled she by lore of school,
Courteous by nature not by rule,
Warm-hearted and of cordial face.
Where her brother was free to follow his artistic muse wherever it should take him, she by contrast was obliged to assume a more clandestine approach, such that when she died, she had over three hundred unpublished poems. In spite of this, by dint of an outstanding talent she marked a revolution that informed the development of contemporaries who read her poetry and understood its extraordinary vigour. Indeed, she was even considered for the post of Poet Laureate when Wordsworth died. Her work strongly influenced the work of later writers including Ford Madox Ford, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Jennings, and Philip Larkin, yet throughout her life the same moral voices were as uneasy at her reputation for literary merit as were those presumably perturbed by Criado’s wish to celebrate the contribution of women in our cultural and intellectual life.
Rossetti died in 1894, the year the Oxford English Dictionary lists as the year of the first appearance of the word ‘feminist’. Yet the recent ugly spat almost demands that we reappraise how far we have in fact travelled in spite of the suffragettes, in spite of the sixties, in spite of Clara Fraser, of Andrea Dworkin, or Caroline Criado-Perez.
The comparison might be made with Barack Obama and his reference to Sam Cooke’s beautiful A Change Is Gonna Come in his presidential acceptance speech. How vivid that night still seems? How, heavy-lidded, we watched amazed as state after state we never dreamed would declare for Obama, Virginia, Indiana, duly did so. Yet even then, as much of a milestone as it was, I sensed it was not equality that an outstanding Harvard lawyer should become the first black president of the United States, but rather would only be so when an african-american of as little evident merit as George W Bush became elected and was subsequently reviled by us every bit as much. Only a handful of years later, George Zimmermann is acquitted of all charges in the shooting of Trayvon Martin and we find ourselves wondering if anything had changed after all.
The common denominator here is that change is always spasmodic and liable to thumb its nose at us as soon as we think we have it nailed down. Yet the important thing is the direction of travel. Depressing as it may have been, before we get too down, we should indulge ourselves by honestly acknowledging all that has been achieved since Christina Rossetti was self-censoring such that she might appear the woman preferable to the Victorian patriarchy.
By all means, let us explore any option that rid the platform of the utterly vile. Yet, as others have observed, the trolls are a symptom and not the root cause. To that end then, let us take our inspiration where we find it, revert to type and challenge, articulate and educate the need for respect, for consideration, lest we too should trample the beautiful, fragile things.
An excellent account of Christina Rossetti’s life, literary career, and the currents of the society in which she lived may be found in Kathleen Jones’ Learning not to be first: The Life of Christina Rossetti