Wednesday, August 31, 2016

'Goodbye.' -- 'Good-bye.'

In the Round Tower at Jhansi
by Christina Rossetti

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.' --
'Good-bye.' -- 'Good-bye.'

One doesn't normally think of Christina Rossetti as a war poet. In 1857, an uprising swept through the Indian province of Jhansi. Captain Alexander Skene and a large number of others retreated to Jhansi Fort, where they were besieged. They eventually negotiated an end to the siege on June 8, Captain Skene thinking that the local Raj was guaranteeing the safety of the prisoners -- but in fact the prisoners were massacred. Rossetti herself notes, in a footnote that she later appended, that her portrayal is not historically accurate -- it was written in response to first rumors of what had happened, and thus gets much of the actual situation wrong -- for instance, the natives never breached the defenses and the Skenes do not seem to have committed suicide. It's possible that the suicide element of the poem was controversial -- when it was first published, it was published without the third stanza.

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