A Short Analysis of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Good Friday’

A summary of a Rossetti poem by Dr Oliver Tearle

‘Good Friday’ was published in Christina Rossetti’s 1866 collection The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems. The poem is about Rossetti’s struggle to feel close to Christ and the teachings of Christianity, and to weep for the sacrifice he made. Below we offer a short summary and analysis of ‘Good Friday’, focusing on its language and meaning.

Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?

Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter, weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;

Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon –
I, only I.

Yet give not o’er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.

We’ll begin with a brief summary of ‘Good Friday’. Rossetti regrets the fact that when she stands and looks up at a depiction of Jesus Christ being crucified, the sight does not move her to tears, unlike the women revered in the Christian tradition who mourned Christ’s death, and Saint Peter, one of Christ’s Apostles, who wept ‘bitterly’ over Jesus’ sacrifice. Even one of the two thieves – between whom Jesus was executed – was moved by his sacrifice.

Rossetti

Even the sun and the moon seem to have been affected by the Crucifixion, since they both disappeared from view as if in mourning, and the sky turned dark, when Jesus died. (The sky went dark, even at midday.) No, Rossetti says, it is only she who is not moved by it – but she wishes she were. Rossetti thus concludes ‘Good Friday’ by entreating Jesus Christ to continue to try to reach her with the power of his sacrifice, likening him to a shepherd who needs to find her, one of his lost sheep.

Rossetti ends by alluding to the story of Moses, the Old Testament figure who led the Jews out of Egypt and to Israel. According to the Book of Numbers, ‘Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also’ (20:11). Since Christ is greater than Moses, Rossetti argues, if he smites (i.e. strikes) a rock, it will be of such power that Rossetti will be converted and overcome by the power of Christianity.

What does Rossetti’s poem ‘Good Friday’ mean? Even though Rossetti knows Christianity inside out (she tells Christ she can ‘number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss’), knowing about something doesn’t automatically lead to feeling its power. She has gazed on the sight of Jesus on the Cross many times, but looking at it, and knowing its significance, doesn’t automatically inspire tears.

Rossetti begins ‘Good Friday’ with a suggestion that is hard, cold, and immovable: unlike a ‘sheep’ which will follow God as part of his flock, she is a ‘stone’ – the implication being that her heart is as hard and unmoved as stone. The ‘stone’ image with which Christina Rossetti begins ‘Good Friday’ reverberates throughout the poem, like a pebble skimming across the surface of a lake: it resurfaces first in ‘Peter’, one of Christ’s Apostles who was so named by Jesus (his original name was actually Simon) because he was going to be the ‘rock’ on which Jesus built his church (Peter is from the Greek petros, ‘rock’, from which we also get ‘petroleum’).

Then it returns in that final line and the violent command, ‘smite a rock.’ Just as Moses striking the rock in the Old Testament gave water and therefore life to his people, so Christ smiting the rock will nourish and inspire Rossetti’s deeper belief in Christianity.

‘Good Friday’ puts us in mind of another Victorian poem, not by Christina Rossetti but by Tennyson, named In Memoriam, of which T. S. Eliot once observed: ‘Its faith is a poor thing, but its doubt is a very intense experience.’ We might analyse Rossetti’s ‘Good Friday’ in such terms: it’s a great Victorian religious poem not because of its out-and-out praise of God, but because it offers a more complex and nuanced take on religious faith.

About Christina Rossetti

Christina Rossetti (1830-94) was one of the Victorian era’s greatest and most influential poets. She was the younger sister (by two years) of the Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Christina Rossetti was born in London in 1830, and lived with her mother virtually all of her life. She never married. Many of her poems engage with the question of religious belief, such as ‘Good Friday’ (a poem about honest religious doubt as much as faith) and ‘Twice’, about the importance of Christian forgiveness and redemption (the poem is spoken by a fallen woman, a theme that can also be seen in ‘Goblin Market’).

Christina Rossetti composed her first poem while still a very young girl; she dictated it to her mother. It ran simply: ‘Cecilia never went to school / Without her gladiator.’ Goblin Market and Other Poems was the first collection of her poetry to be published, and it was the book that brought her to public attention. The title poem is a long narrative poem which is often taken for a children’s poem because of its fairy-tale motifs and imagery; Rossetti, however, always denied that the poem was intended for children. Several of the poems in the volume, such as ‘Remember’ and ‘When I am dead, my dearest’, were composed before she had turned twenty.

Rossetti’s influences were as diverse as the many poetic forms in which she wrote: sonnets, ballads, narrative poems, lyrics, even Christmas carols (‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ to name but the most famous). She was remarkably prolific: the Penguin edition of her Complete Poems runs to well over 1,000 pages and is a treasure-trove for the poetry-lover.

Rossetti died in 1894 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery where fellow Victorian writer George Eliot had earlier been laid to rest. She went on to influence a range of later poets, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ford Madox Ford, and Elizabeth Jennings. Philip Larkin was an admirer, praising her ‘steely stoicism’.

Good Friday by Christina Rossetti

The poem, Good Friday, was composed in the year of 1862 and had its first publication in a book, named as Tractarian poetry, and which is otherwise christened as Lyra Messianica: Hymns and Verses on the Life of Christ, Ancient and Modern; with Other Poems. This book included prehistoric Latin devotional poems and hymns in addition to more modern verses. Right after this first publication, Rossetti combined the poem, The Good Friday in her 2nd volume of poetry, which is known as The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems in 1866.

Good Friday is a devotional poem. From a literary point of view, the word ‘devotional’ means writing that could augment the religious life or faith of a person. Rossetti, through her pen, had composed a large number of poems based on devotional themes. In these poems, the poet composed prayer poems to express her intimate bond with God and to boost her readers so that they can live a devotional and God-worshipping life. All of Rossetti’s devotional poems orbit around the prophecies, warnings, and promises that you find in the Bible.

Through Good Friday, Rossetti has tried to show the longing of the speaker who though wants to adopt Christianity, she is not ready to adopt it unless the Christ comes as a shepherd, and leads her like her sheep. The poem is a spiritual one and talks about the many different characters of Jesus Christ’s life that played key roles when he was being crucified. With the portrayal of these characters, the poet has compared her sorrows with those who were with Jesus Christ.

Good Friday Analysis

AM I a stone and not a sheep

That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy Cross,

To number drop by drop Thy Blood’s slow loss,

And yet not weep?

The poem, Good Friday, by Christian Rossetti, begins with a very harsh sentence, that is; ‘Am I a stone,’ which shows that the poet is not like the sheep that will follow God as part of his flock, rather she says that she is a ‘stone’, meaning her heart is hard like stone, or she is so stone-hearted that she will get moved by the crucifixion of Christ. It is to be noted here that the ‘stone’ image whereby the poet begins the poem, Good Friday, echoes all through the poem.

The speaker in further lines says though she can number drop by drop his blood’s slow loss, yet she will not weep. That is; the poet has become so hard and stone-hearted that even the ‘slow loss of Christ’s blood’ will not lead her to burst into tears.

Not so those women loved

Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;

Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;

Not so the thief was moved;

In these lines, the speaker is shown comparing herself to ‘those women’ who loved Christ and lamented over his crucifixion. This refers to the detail provided in the Gospel of Luke of Jesus in which the crowd was being led up to the place of crucifixion. The crowd had several people, which also comprised of women that wailed and mourned for him.

The speaker himself wishes to join this number, but she finds it out that the experienced numbness brings about a parting from this experience. She says that she is not like ‘fallen Peter’ who wept bitterly over the death of Jesus Christ, and she is also not like the thief who was also crucified with Christ. The reference of Peter in the above lines relate to the time of ‘Last Supper’ when Peter expressed his wish to go with Christ to prison or even to death by was denied by the Christ himself.

So, this is the remorse that the poet is lamenting over in these lines, and comparing her sorrow with him and laments over it that even she is helpless in doing as Peter did at the time of Jesus’s crucifixion.

In the last line of the above stanza, the speaker compares herself with the thief who was also crucified by the side of Jesus Christ. The gospel says that while Jesus was about to be crucified, there were also two criminals to be executed beside him, and one of the criminals had recognized Jesus’s innocence.

However, remembering this too, the speaker again finds herself of no use to serve Jesus, and feel sorry for what she is unable to do as the criminal (here thief) did for Jesus Christ. The speaker says that she cannot even compare her sorrow with the thief who, in spite of himself being in the state of agony, was immensely compassionate towards Christ.

Not so the Sun and Moon

Which hid their faces in a starless sky,

A horror of great darkness at broad noon—

I, only I.

In the above four lines stanza, the speaker is shown comparing herself with the Sun and Moon that hid at broad noon, and engulfed the entire land with darkness when Jesus Christ was crucified. The speaker here says that even nature was subject to traumatization due to Jesus’ crucifixion.

The idea referred in the above lines relates to the following gospel account wherein it has been stated that when the Christ was to be crucified, the Sunsets without any reason, the Moon stopped offering its lights at night. In fact, at the time of Jesus’s crucifixion, the whole land was covered with darkness.

Yet give not o’er,

But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;

Greater than Moses, turn and look once more

And smite a rock.

The above four lines of, Good Friday, by Christina Rossetti, conclude the poem. Here the speaker entreats Jesus Christ to go on trying to reach her with the power of his sacrifice, comparing him to a shepherd and herself to the sheep who is astray of the flock, and request him to find her like he (Christ) used to find her astray sheep.

The speaker concludes the poem by referring to the story of Moses, who had led the Jews out of Egypt and to Israel. In this final verse, the poet, through the speaker, states that Christ is ‘Greater than Moses’.

As the Book of Numbers states, ‘Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote (struck) the rock twice: and the water poured out profusely, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also’. Since Christ is regarded as greater than Moses, the speaker says, if he smites (i.e. strikes) a rock, it will be of such power that she will be converted and overcome by the power of Christianity.

About Christina Rossetti

Born to Gabriele Rossetti, Christina Rossetti was the youngest of her three siblings. Religious devotion played a key role in Rossetti’s life. She began her poem writing journey in 1842 when she mostly followed her favorite poets. But some years later she started experimenting with a variety of verse forms such as sonnets, hymns, and ballads. She is one of the poets whose popularity went up after her death. Rossetti is also well-known as a great advocate of human rights and particularly women’s rights.