At first sight, Sing-Song appears to be a normal book of children's verse. This is a view also mentioned in the Oxford History of Children's Literature: "At first glance, the poetry of Christina Rossetti might seem slight." [Hunt, 160]. Maria Verch also supports this idea. She speaks of the "traditionellen Themenkatalog" [125], out of which Rossetti picks her themes for the poems in Sing-Song.

However, one has to consider Rossetti's position in Victorian society as a woman writer by the time she wrote the book. According to Isobel Armstrong, Christina Rossetti was "marginalized as a woman writer" [47]. Dorothy Mermin supports this view when she states: "For a man writing poetry meant an apparent withdrawal from the public sphere, but for a woman it meant exactly the opposite" [68] As I have discussed earlier, Rossetti was almost certainly sexually frustrated. She denied herself what she desperately longed for, yet, she could not exclude these longings from her poetry. Looking at Sing-Song from this perspective, it becomes clear that Rossetti uses the male genre of children's verse to reveal her disguised innermost feelings. Gilbert/ Gubar speak of "concealing female secrets within male devised genres and conventions" [Gilbert/Gubar, Madwoman 220] They do portray a similar attitude in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre: "projecting her anxieties into images of orphan children". Bronte uses her own childhood experiences at Cowan Bridge to describe Jane Eyre's time at Lowood school. [Gilbert/Gubar, 583] And Dorothy Mermin states the same for Emily Dickinson: "Even more than Rossetti, Dickinson likes to situate her speakers in or beyond the grave, and they characteristically identify with flowers, children, smallness, powerlessness and silence" [77].

Before the Victorian Era, children's education was dominated by male-written texts and moral instructions, such as Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and Blake's Songs of Innocence. However, Rossetti was by no means the first woman to write for children. Roderick McGillis explains: "even in these childlike verses for and about children, Christina cannot forget the great central themes of her poetry, love, death, and parting" [144]. Moreover, "by using these forms, Rossetti — like many other women writers of the Victorian period who wrote for children - was able to voice her desires and her feminine concerns at once openly and secretly" [229].

The Memory of Her Own Childhood

Sing-Song was partly written in remembrance of Rossetti's own childhood. It was a happy one, spent with her three siblings, growing up mainly in London. (The four Rossetti children were born in four successive years from 1827 to 1830.) They were educated by their mother, Frances Rossetti, a former governess. Some of the poems clearly echo the education they themselves received:

Seldom 'can't',
Seldom 'don't,
Never 'shan't,
Never 'won't. [431]

This poem shows how Victorian children (including the Rossettis) were taught rules for their behaviour. "Shan't" and "won't" were words of refusal one did not expect to hear from a child. Refusal was possible if expressed with the more polite "can't" or "don't." However, even these words were only to be used seldomly. Most of the time children where expected to be obedient to what they were told without the slightest criticism.

Baby cry --
Oh fie! At the physic in the cup:
Gulp it twice
and gulp it thrice,
Baby, gulp it up. [Works 426]

Even today, most small children have to be forced to take medicine. They usually cannot understand why they should swallow something that tastes awful and bitter. They are too small to connect the medicine with their illness. Rossetti beautifully describes the experience in this timeless poem. "Baby cry — Oh fie!" echoes the mother trying to calm down the child with simple mocking words while preparing herself to force the liquid down baby's throat. She pours the physic into baby's mouth and then tells it to "gulp it up." The words "gulp it twice, gulp it thrice" indicate a slight struggle before the procedure is finally done with.

Sing-Song contains a lot of "learning rhymes" [Marsh, 6] to teach children about the world they live in, explaining the seasons ("There is but one may in the year" [Works 430]), the months ("The days are clear" [430]); "January cold and desolate" [432]), how to count ("1 and 1 are 2") [431], the time ("How many seconds in a minute?") [431n], the currency ("What will you give me for my pound?") [437], the colours ("What is pink?") [432] and the alphabet ("An alphabet") [433].

But the Rossetti's childhood was not only spent with learning. Christina also looks back on the happy holidays she spent in her Grandfather Polidori's home Holmer Green in Buckinghamshire. The Rossetti children spent whole days discovering the landscape around them and the animals that lived there:

Dancing on the hill-tops,
Singing in the valleys,
Laughing with the echoes,
Merry little Alice.

Playing games with lambkins
In the flowering valleys,
Gathering pretty posies,
Helpful little Alice.

If her father's cottage
Turned into a palace,
And he owned the hill-tops
And the flowering valleys,
She'd be none the happier,
Happy little Alice. [434]

This poem underlines the happiness of Rossetti's childhood. "Little Alice," Rossetti's alter ego spends her childhood "singing," "dancing' and "laughing" while walking around in the countryside of "hill-tops" and "valleys." The first stanza describes Alice's discovery of the world around her: climbing up the hills and down again to the valleys, coming across natural phenomena like "echoes" — life is like a joyful dance for Alice. In the second stanza Alice is spotting the animals and plants. She plays with the lambkins and enjoys and picks the flowers (probably to give them to somebody). The third stanza concludes that for all the wealth this landscape offers to her, Alice could not be a happier girl if her father owned the countryside. All she needs to be content is the freedom of walking around in nature.

It is probably the freedom and the happiness of those past days that Rossetti most longed for during her illness. A poem like "Fly away, fly away over the sea" [Works 436] seems to be an allegory for her wish to go back to this part of her life where she did not have a care in this world. Throughout Sing-Song Rossetti describes animals, with which, according to Lona Mosk Packer, she felt a "sympathetic bond . . . between Christina and the small creatures such as puppies, kittens and birds" [265]: From the cocks that used to wake the Rossetti's in the morning ("Kookoorookoo! Kookoorookoo!" [ 426]), to birds ("Wrens and robins in the hedge" [428]), cows ("Brownie, Brownie, let down your milk" [429]), cats ("Pussy has a whiskered face" [434]), dogs ("The dog lies in his kennel" [434]), mice ("The city mouse lives in a house" [433]), to little attractive creatures like frogs and toads ("Hoping frog, hop here and be seen" [433]) and caterpillars ("Brown and furry" [431]).

Lambkins hold a special place in Sing-Song, as a series of poems deals with them: "A frisky lamb, a frisky child" [435], "A motherless soft lambkin" [433] and "On the grassy banks" [429]. As the title of the first poem shows, lambs are likened to children. Like these, lambs have to be cared for and protected. Furthermore, they behave with a childlike innocence. This imagery of lambs symbolising children was applied by William Blake in his Songs of Innocence as well. Lambs and children attract with their innocence which likens them to Jesus. See William Blake's poem "The Lamb". Dante Gabriel Rossetti ascribes a Blakean notion to Sing-Song, "alternating between mere babyism and a sort of Blakish wisdom and tenderness" [cited McGillis, 221n].

Finally, a poem like "Hear what the mournful linnets say" [427] acknowledges the fact that there are not only good children in the world. They do not, as another poem demands "Hurt no living thing" [439], but cruelly destroy the birds nest for fun.

The same theme is used for "If the sun could tell us half". [442] (Both of these poems evoke a similar scene in Anne Brontë's novel Agnes Grey, in which the protagonist, a governess, in vain tries to stop her pupils from destroying a bird's nest and is appalled by their cruelty.)

Last modified 15 March 2007