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SPOTLIGHT: Christina Rossetti 'In the Bleak Midwinter"

Thursday, June 16, 2016

    I have loved the poetry of Christina Rossetti since I was in my teens, and bought a volume of her poetry at a church fete. 

I had wanted her to be a major character in BEAUTY IN THORNS, my novel about the Pre-Raphaelites, but eventually decided that I could not do her poetry and life justice in the small amount of space I could have devoted to her. 

I removed all the chapters I had written about her, and put them into a separate file. 

Since then I have been thinking and wondering and playing with ideas for a book about her. Not a novel. A kind of imaginative biography.  

Then I realised that Christina Rossetti was born on the 5th December 1830, a week before another one of my favourite poets Emily Dicksinson (who was born on the 10th December 1830). 

And so now I'm thinking of writing a double biography ... though perhaps the term bibliomemoir would be more accurate. A book that looks at the lives and works of two extraordinary 19th century women, and their shaping force upon my own life. Yet it is not the type of thing I usually write. Would anyone want to publish it? I wondered. Would anyone want to read it?

Then last night I went to hear my daughter sing at her school Christmas concert. And one of the songs the choir sang was 'In the Bleak Midwinter', a poem written by Christina Rossetti which I have always loved. It was so beautiful, I had shivers all over my body. It seemed like a sign. Maybe I should write about her and Emily Dicksinson, I thought. Even if no-one would want to publish it. Just for my own pleasure. And so I've begun to put a few ideas together - it'll be something I'll play with in quiet moments and hope one day will be born and have a life beyond me.

And I've thought of a title (always a sign for me that a book has real possibilities). I'm thinking of calling it 'Hope is the Thing with Feathers', from one of my favourite poems by Emily Dickinson.       

It has uncanny echoes with a poem by Christina Rossetti:

And here, for your pleasure, is Christina Rossetti's poem 'In the Bleak Midwinter':

And another favourite poem about winter by Emily Dickinson:

What do you think? Would any of you like to read a book about Christina Rossetti & Emily Dickinson?

A Rapunzel poem by Kate Forsyth

Thursday, February 11, 2016

BITTER GREENS, my imaginative retelling of Rapunzel, has won the ALA Award for Best Historical Fiction!

I also studied a Doctorate of Creative arts on the fairy tale, writing a thesis called 'The Rescue of Rapunzel: A Mythic History of the Maiden in the Tower tale,' and a poem, 'In the Tower': 

In the Tower

Walled in my old stone tower
the bitter taste of tears
always in my throat
only a slit to put my eye to
yet how full of change is that sky
I watch the stars wheel past
seasons turning and turning
the one tree on that faraway hill
once more bursts into life
green in the shadows
golden in the light 

Walled in my silent tower
how can I frame the words
to tell my story
my heart is a riddle
green sickness in my soul
loneliness the heaviest burden
how I long to slip free
of this empty shadowed tower
fly on muffled wings like the owl
white against the thorns
black against the moon

Walled in my cold stone tower
I conjure a steed from flame
An invisible cloak from ashes
A frail ladder from cobwebs
I make a dagger from ice
A key from bone and wishes
I spin a song from the silence
One day someone shall sing my refrain
Green in the shadows
Golden in the light

Free of my shadowy tower
We shall bind ourselves together
With tendrils of green
With tresses of gold
We shall build a castle of light and air
And banish silence with song
Together we’ll dance in the forest
White against the thorns
Black against the moon

by Kate Forsyth

BOOK REVIEW: A YEAR WITH RILKE: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke: Translated & Edited by Joanna Macy & Anita Barrows

Wednesday, February 03, 2016


One of the most beloved poets of the twentieth century, Rainer Maria Rilke is widely celebrated for his depth of insight and timeless relevance. 

He has influenced generations of writers with his classic Letters to a Young Poet, and his reflections on the divine and our place in the world are disarmingly profound. 

A Year with Rilke provides the first ever reading from Rilke for every day of the year, including selections from his luminous poetry, his piercing prose, and his intimate letters and journals.

Rilke is a trusted guide amid the bustle of our daily experience, reflecting on such themes as impermanence, the beauty of creation, the voice of God, and the importance of solitude. 

With new translations from the editors, whose acclaimed translation of Rilke's The Book of Hours won an ardent readership, this collection reveals the depth and breadth of Rilke's acclaimed work.


I first encountered Rainer Maria Rilke when a friend gave me a copy of LETTERS TO A YOUNG POET when I was in my early twenties.

It spoke to me very powerfully, and I went on to read many of Rilke’s poems and letters. 

I re-discovered Rilke again when I was writing my latest novel THE BEAST’S GARDEN, which is a retelling of Beauty & the Beast set in Nazi Germany.

I was drawn to read his work again because I remembered that Rilke was obsessed with roses, (a potent motif in the fairy tale) and wrote many poems about them. 

As part of my journey of rediscovery, I bought A YEAR WITH RILKE. It brings together a collection of his writings – excerpts from poetry (both published and unpublished), letters, and diaries – each chosen to match a certain day of the year. 

The idea is to read one page a day, every day, for the full year.  I have kept the book next to my bed to read, and did so most evenings. Occasionally I had to read two or three – or even ten - pages to catch up. It didn’t matter. 

The excerpts are each so small and so easily read, and sometimes I would read the same poem over and over again, trying to let it soak into my soul. Occasionally the reading for the day was so uncannily prescient, so necessary to what I needed to read just then, it seemed fore-ordained. 

It’s a beautiful way to read his work – and a perfect way to be introduced to him. 

The only complaint I have to make is that it is designed for an audience in the northern hemisphere and so some of the seasonal pieces (like the poem for March 21, which was ‘Spring!’) are out-of-whack for an Australian reader. But it's a minor complaint – and I simply went back and read them again at the tight time. 


SPOTLIGHT: The Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke

Sunday, January 03, 2016


I first encountered Rainer Maria Rilke when a friend gave me a copy of LETTERS TO A YOUNG POET when I was in my early twenties. It spoke to me very powerfully, and some lines were deeply engraved into my soul:

“In the deepest hour of the night, confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write. And look deep into your heart where it spreads its roots, the answer, and ask yourself, must I write?”

I read LETTERS TO A YOUNG POET many times, and moved on to reading all of Rilke’s poems and letters. My favourite collection was called RILKE’S BOOK OF HOURS, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. Their version of Rilke was simple, yet profoundly powerful. It was a book I often picked up to browse through, then would not look at again for years …until I needed it again. 

I also read a number of biographies of his life, which was one long struggle to live deeply and intensely, to write truthfully, and to understand love.

Born in Prague, in what was then part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, in 1875, and christened Rene Maria Rilke, he spent much of his childhood dressed as a girl, as his mother grieved for a daughter who had died after only a week of life some time before his birth. 

Unsurprisingly Rilke had a difficult adolescence, was sent to a military school that he hated, and then on to various universities (though he never graduated with a degree). He had a long and intense relationship with a married woman, Lou Andreas-Salomé, who later studied with Sigmund Freud in Vienna. Rilke travelled with Lou and her husband to Russia and met Leo Tolstoy and Boris Pasternak, and later lived in Paris where he worked for the sculptor Auguste Rodin (and was sacked by him for taking poetic license with the letters he wrote on the sculptor’s behalf). 

At the age of twenty-five, he married another sculptor, Clara Westhoff, but they had an unconventional marriage, each pursuing their own careers and leaving their daughter Ruth to be raised by Clara’s parents. I have often wondered what their daughter felt about this, and what impact it had upon her. Rilke and his wife then had what he called an ‘interior’ marriage – a relationship conducted mainly through intense, passionate, and often self-justifying letters. 

Rainer Maria Rilke & his wife, Clara Westhoff

Clara & their daughter Ruth

His experiences in World War I – which saw him unable to escape from Germany - lead to a long battle with writer’s block. He found refuge in Switzerland, and there wrote many of his most intense and lyrical poems during a high pitch of creativity in February 1922 – a "boundless storm, a hurricane of the spirit". Of these, perhaps the First Elegy is the most famous (and one of my own personal favourites): 

A long struggle with his health followed, and Rilke died in the arms of his doctor on December 29, 1926, at a sanatorium in Switzerland, from leukemia. 

It is said he died after pricking his finger on a rose thorn … 

Given his obsession with roses, this seems fitting. He wrote as his epitaph for his grave: 

Rose, oh reiner Widerspruch,
niemandes Schlaf zu sein unter soviel Lidern

This is usually translated as: 

Rose, oh pure contradiction, 
of being no-one's sleep under so many lids.

What the English translation does not convey is the punning similarity between the German for eyelids (Lidern) and songs (Liedern) – so that there may be a covert reference to music and perhaps poetry in this strange and enigmatic set of lines. 
I have wondered about this epigraph a lot, trying to understand it. Reading a number of different academic articles about it, I find that no-one really seems to know what it means. 

The comparison between rose petals and eyelids may refer to something Rilke wrote in his diary in 1900: 
‘I’ve invented a new form of caress: placing a rose gently on a closed eye until its coolness can no longer be felt; only the gentle petal will continue to rest on the eyelid like sleep just before dawn.’ 

Or perhaps it has more to do with another favourite poem of mine, from Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus:

Erect no gravestone. Just let the rose
bloom every year for him.
For this is Orpheus: metamorphosis
into one thing, then another.
We need not search for other names.
It is Orpheus in the singing, once and for all time.
He comes and goes. Is it not enough
that sometimes he outlasts a bowl of roses?
Oh, if you could understand -- he has no choice but to disappear,
even should he long to stay. As his song
exceeds the present moment,
so he is already gone where we cannot follow.
The lyre's strings do not constrain his hands.
It is in moving farther on that he obeys.

(This translation comes from Joanne Macy. The translation by Edward Snow begin ‘Erect no monument. Allow the rose/to unfurl each year on his behalf ..’ and finishes ‘The lyre’s snare doesn’t trap his hands. And he obeys, even as he overreaches.’ One of the problems with reading Rilke in translation is that there are so many different versions! I tend to have favourites that I return to. Of my personal collections, I tend to find Joanne Macy’s translations simpler and more spiritual, Edward Snow’s more literal, and Stephen Cohn’s the most intensely poetic. His translation begins ‘Build no memorial but let the rose/blossom each year according to his pleasure; for this is Orpheus …’ ) 

I read Rilke in depth again when I was writing my latest novel THE BEAST’S GARDEN, which is a retelling of the Grimm brother’s version of Beauty & the Beast set in Nazi Germany. 
I was initially drawn to rediscover his work because of Rilke’s obsession with roses, (a potent motif in the French version of the fairy tale).

He has many poems that feature roses as their subject, or as a symbol or metaphor. I’ve always loved these lines, about rose petals falling:

‘And what they shed: how it can be light or heavy,
a cloak, a burden, a wing, a mask — it just depends —
and how they let it fall: as if disrobing for a lover.’

The same poem ends:

“And aren't they all doing the same: only containing themselves,
if to contain oneself means: to transform the world outside
and wind and rain and patience of spring
and guilt and restlessness and disguised fate
and darkness of earth at evening
all the way to the errancy, flight, and coming on of clouds
all the way to the vague influence of the distant stars
into a handful of inwardness.
Now it lies free of cares in the open roses.’

Rilke, "A Bowl of Roses." Trans. Galway Kinell & Hannah Liebman. American Poetry Review 1999 28(3):61 

As I was researching and writing THE BEAST’S GARDEN, I read many of my favourite Rilke poems again, and discovered many other key motifs in his work that resonated strongly with the book I was writing – images of birds and angels, flying and falling, stars and dark spaces, and – most importantly - a heartfelt grappling with the meaning of love and death. 

I read again a passage that had moved me strongly as a young woman:

‘Love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.’ 
(from the Seventh Letter in Letters to a Young Poet, New World Library edition). 

Here are some of the poems that I reference in my novel.

Be ahead of all parting, as if it had already happened.
like winter, which even now is passing.
For beneath the winter is a winter so endless
that to survive it at all is a triumph of the heart.
Be forever dead in Eurydice, and climb back singing.
Climb praying as you return to connection.
Here among the disappearing, in the realm of the transient,
be a ringing glass that shatters as it rings.
Be. And, at the same time, know what it is not to be.
The non-being inside you allows you to vibrate
in full resonance with your world. Use it for once.
To all that has run its course, and to the vast unsayable
numbers of beings abounding in Nature,
add yourself gladly, and cancel the cost.

(from Sonnets to Orpheus, No 13, trans. Joanne Macy )

(A hand-written manuscript page from Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus

and another:

I love you, gentlest of Ways
who ripened us as we wrestled with you.
You, the great homesickness we could never shake off,
you, the forest that always surrounded us,
you, the song we sang in every silence,
you dark net threading through us,
on the day you made us you created yourself,
and we grew sturdy in your sunlight…
Let your hand rest on the rim of Heaven now
And mutely bear the darkness we bring over you.

(from "The Book of Hours, I, 25" – trans. Anita Barrows  & Joanna Macy, Rilke’s Book of Hourse: Love Poems to God, Riverhead Books, 1996)

Dying is strange and hard
if it is not our death, but a death
that takes us by storm, 
when we've ripened none within us.

(from "The Book of Hours III; 8" – trans. Anita Barrows  & Joanna Macy, Rilke’s Book of Hourse: Love Poems to God, Riverhead Books, 1996)

This is what the things can teach us:
to fall,
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.

From "The Book of Hours II, 16" - trans. Anita Barrows  & Joanna Macy, Rilke’s Book of Hourse: Love Poems to God, Riverhead Books, 1996)

And from the same book (which is one of my favourites):

The hour is striking so close above me,
so clear and sharp,
that all my senses ring with it.
I feel it now: there’s a power in me
to grasp and give shape to my world.
I know that nothing has ever been real
without my beholding it.
All my becoming has needed me.
My looking ripens things
and they come toward me, to meet and be met.”

Rediscovering the work of this intense, lyrical, and mystical poet has been one of the greatest joys of my journey in writing THE BEAST’S GARDEN – I hope you will discover some of his work too. 

Do you have a favourite Rilke quote or poem? Please share with me! 

A LOVE POEM for my one true love

Friday, February 14, 2014

I wrote this poem many years ago, when I first met and fell in love with the man who would become my husband and the father of our three children. That was a long time ago now! Twenty-five years ... so much has changed in that time, but not our love for each other. Happy Valentine's Day, Greg!


I want to draw a map of you
alone I sail your unknown seas
currents seize my rudder
through tricky coral reefs I steer
in your ocean whales sing

I follow a shadowed river
convoluting from the sea
deep I follow your green river
slow through snowy ranges
to the rooftop of your world 

thunderclouds boil on your horizons
shadow of a god's hand pressing me
flat against your stony hills
sometimes striking me down
with lightning's quick crisscross 

wondering if lakes lap your interior
I find red dust   dragons   devil's marbles
deep I dig for stones and metals
build cities on your shores 
ploughing and seeding your red flesh
I harvest a strange flower 

I have drawn a map of you
with my fingers  my tongue  my core
I have imprinted 
my hand in your clay

Kate Forsyth

On our wedding day

A Rapunzel poem by Adele Geras

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Adele Geras, a UK writer whose work I admire greatly, sent me this beautiful Rapunzel poem. I just wish I could have included it as an epigraph in Bitter Greens!


          There were stairs
               on the way up.
               I am sure of it.
               I can see the wall.
               Beyond the wall
               there must be something,
               but I cannot say
               exactly what it is.
               There was a door
               on the way in.
               I am sure of it,
               but thorn trees have grown
               as quick as weeds
               and covered it.
               The stairs have melted.
               Your footsteps, as you left,
               turned them to wax,
               which has blocked the stairwell
               and set in every crevice.
               You have made the tower
               your particular candle.
               my hair will flare to gold.
               There were other places
               before this room.
               I am sure of it.

'Rapunzel' drawing by Isobel Lilian Gloag

Adele Geras has written a fresh and inventive retake on Rapunzel called The Tower Room, which is set in a 1960s English girls’ school. The story draws upon the key motifs of the fairytale - the tower, illicit love, an angry mother-figure - while still telling a compelling coming-of-age story. 

Adele Geras's website

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