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Poem of the Month: Christina Rossetti’s “Who has seen the wind?”
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Wind-Swept Tree, Fereneze Hills (Wikimedia Commons)

 

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling
The wind is passing thro’.

Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads
The wind is passing by.

My five-year-old son asked me yesterday what made the wind. This was during a powerful windstorm when we woke up to the bang of the electrical explosion somewhere outside in our village and discovered we had no power. Explanations of high and low pressure were attempted but didn’t go over very well, of course, so we started to talk about how you couldn’t see the wind, but you could see it move the trees (this was as we watched our trees outside as they were buffeted alarmingly by the storm). And this made me think of Christina Rossetti’s nursery rhyme, “Who has seen the wind?”, collected in her volume for children, Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872), illustrated by her friend Arthur Hughes.

The nursery rhyme book is full of gems, but this poem is my favourite for illustrating Rossetti’s belief in the spiritual meanings of nature. The wind can’t be seen, but its effects can be seen and felt. For Rossetti, nature yields up its meanings through the Tractarian doctrine of Analogy, whereby signs in the material world signify the spiritual, but only to the initiated (Reserve, or withholding meaning, is another important Tractarian doctrine). The two quatrains of this poem do not overtly mention God, or the spiritual, but the actions of the wind denote God’s spiritual power and how it can be apprehended by the senses. The poem uses a simple question and answer format, favoured by Rossetti especially for religious poetry, as with her famous poem “Uphill”, and recalling the liturgy. The personified image of the trees moves from that of trembling leaves to the whole tree bowing down, suggesting the increased power of the wind to move. Of course, here, the idea of nature being moved by a natural force also signifies nature being moved by God, and nature as God’s language, signifying spiritual meanings for those who can read appropriately. Rossetti is a mediator of spiritual truths, a female sage, but in this poem the meaning can also be read in an entirely secular sense.

This is why the Tractarian doctrines of Analogy and Reserve are so perfectly used here, in a collection of children’s nursery rhymes: spiritual meaning is there to those who apprehend it, and who may in turn choose to interpret to the child auditor. The question of the poetic voice is also used in a doubled way: the voices are not in fact identified, leaving open the possibility of interpreting the questioner as the child, perhaps, who is also being read to. This adoption of the child’s voice and point of view, or prosopopoeia, gives a power to the child, something that is emphasised by the repetition of the same question at the start of each stanza. The second voice, the respondent who answers the question, is both the adult reader and, implicitly, also Christ who (as with “Uphill”) gives spiritual consolation of God’s presence in nature. But the poem could just as well be read as entirely one voice, with the initial question a rhetorical one. Either reading works or, perhaps, both readings at the same time. After all, this is a poem that reverses the order of “I” and “you” in its second stanza, as if signally a reciprocity between reader and listener, child and adult, child and Christ, material and spiritual meanings. The sense of reciprocity, of seekers finding answers, is also underscored by the meter which (as I read it), shifts after line 2 in each stanza from trochaic to iambic, falling to rising. How appropriate in for a world-view in which the risen Christ is evident even in trees bowed down by the wind, bowing to the power of the unseen. Arthur Hughes’s illustration, with its little copse swaying in a wind, gives a sense of the power of this movement.

This poem is included in a beautiful iPad application for children, IfPoems, which is based on nineteenth-century poetry and includes the capacity to record your own recitations (or your children’s, although mine are too little), as well as boasting brilliant poetry readings by distinguished British actors Helena Bonham Carter and Bill Nighy. 10% of the proceeds from the sale of the app goes to Save the Children.

There is even a gorgeous yarn called after the volume of poems, Colinette’s Rossetti—Sing Song Nunlet.

But why are there so few critical essays on this collection?

 

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Poem of the Month: Christina Rossetti’s “Who has seen the wind?” by Alison Chapman, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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