Friday, 22 July 2016

Promises Like Pie-Crust, by Christina Rossetti

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

Christina Rossetti (1830-94) came from a highly cultured Anglo-Italian family, of which she was the youngest member. She began writing poems as a child, mainly so as not to be overshadowed by her elder siblings, of whom the best known was the Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

She was a highly prolific and talented poet, being one of the foremost women poets of the 19th century. Much of her work was devotional in nature and she is probably best known today for the words of the Christmas hymn “In the Bleak Mid-Winter”.

Her poem “Promises Like Pie-Crust” consists of three 8-line stanzas with a basic ABABCDCD rhyme scheme, although she is not afraid to use half-rhymes (such as promises/liberties and were/fare), there being one such in each stanza.

The poem

Promise me no promises,
So will I not promise you:
Keep we both our liberties,
Never false and never true:
Let us hold the die uncast,
Free to come as free to go:
For I cannot know your past,
And of mine what can you know?

You, so warm, may once have been
Warmer towards another one:
I, so cold, may once have seen
Sunlight, once have felt the sun:
Who shall show us if it was
Thus indeed in time of old?
Fades the image from the glass,
And the fortune is not told.

If you promised, you might grieve
For lost liberty again:
If I promised, I believe
I should fret to break the chain.
Let us be the friends we were,
Nothing more but nothing less:
Many thrive on frugal fare
Who would perish of excess.


The poem is not religious in tone but it certainly has a “moral” to it. It is not possible to understand it without being aware of the full meaning of the title, which comes from the well-known saying: “Promises are like pie-crust – Made to be broken”.  With that thought in mind, the poem makes perfect sense and there is no need to invoke any other connotations from either pies or crusts!

The poem is clearly an address from one friend to another, with the assumption being that, as the poet is a woman, the other party is a man, but that is not the only possible interpretation. It begins with the line “Promise me no promises”, so that the reader, forewarned with the message of the title, knows immediately that the reason for this plea is that the speaker has absolutely no confidence that any such promise will be kept.

The message of the opening stanza (and indeed of the whole poem) is therefore that the relationship that is envisaged must be conducted on the understanding that both parties are complete equals and that neither will expect anything from the other that they are not willing to give. Individuals must be able, as the third line states, to keep their liberties by not committing themselves to each other.

Something to notice in this poem is that every statement and question that applies to one party is balanced by an equivalent phrase that applies to the other. Thus the second line, following the request for no promises, is “So will I not promise you”, and the stanza ends with “For I cannot know your past” being balanced by “And of mine what can you know?”

The second stanza develops the point made in the closing couplet of the first, in that it posits that “you, so warm” might have known others in the past and “I, so cold” may “once have felt the sun”. The admission that the other party is “warm”, in contrast to the speaker, might seem to break the theme of perfect balance, but that is not really the case, because the end result is the same, namely that without promises and revelations the two are still equal. They are as they are, at the present time and without a past to complicate matters.

The idea of not wanting to know the past, and thus being able to concentrate on the present, is emphasised in this stanza with the rhetorical question: “Who shall show us if it was / Thus indeed in time of old?”, to which the answer is, of course, nobody. Without the enquiry, whether conducted through questions and answers or via the medium of a fortune-teller’s “glass”, the past can be forgotten as though it had never existed.

The word “promise” is not used in the second stanza, but it reappears in the third in a conditional form: “If you promised, you might grieve”. The grieving is for the loss of liberty, which the speaker is desperate to preserve. Again, this is expressed as applying to both parties with the balancing: “If I promised, I believe / I would fret …”

The conclusion is a plea for the status quo, namely that the pair should remain as friends, “Nothing more but nothing less”, which echoes the fourth line of the first stanza: “Never false but never true”. The final couplet leaves the reader with the poem’s “moral”, which is that: “Many thrive on frugal fare / Who would perish of excess”. The expression of this thought in the third person is significant, though, in that the speaker cannot bring herself to express a personal opinion but must rely on what she believes applies to the “many”.

The whole poem, therefore, comes across as the expression of emotional coldness and sterility. It is all about what must not happen, because the pain of making and breaking promises, and of sharing past experiences, could be too great to bear. The message seems to be that one’s sanity can only be preserved in a relationship if one holds back and maintains one’s equality with the other party by giving away the bare minimum in terms of commitment.

Or is it? The idea that someone would advocate such a course, for fear of being hurt, must strike the reader as being close to absurd. This reader takes the view that what Christina Rossetti is doing here is pointing to that very absurdity. This is not how lovers behave with each other. Falling in love is all about taking emotional risks and playing with fire. Promises will be made, and of course most of them will be broken. But so what?

On the face of it, this is a poem about being friends and nothing more. However, the very fact that the poet is expressing her concerns about what might happen if promises are made shows that the thought has crossed her mind. She knows that she is on the brink of making a commitment, and she appreciates that all efforts to avoid doing so, by balancing all the pros and cons and sticking to preserving her “liberty”, are artificial devices that sound ridiculous when rationalized in the way they are here.

This is therefore a poem that conveys a very different message to the one that, at first reading, might be assumed. Christina Rossetti may talk about thriving on “frugal fare”, but surely that is far from her real desire. The clue comes in the fourth line; without promises being made and broken a couple may indeed never be false, but neither will their love ever be true.

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

© John Welford

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant analysis of this poem, very helpful and insightful