Promises like Piecrust

Carla Bruni is singing this famous poem by the English poet Christina Rossetti (1830 – 1894), who was the daughter of an Italian family that had taken political refuge in London.


Christina Rossetti is expressing very directly her personal sentiments to a man who was important in her life, who loved theorising.  And the theories that she presents to him are on a theme that will remain of vital interest as long as human beings love one another – the theme of emotional possessiveness.


Surprisingly, total possessiveness is often regarded as the ideal for true love – “I belong to you and you belong to me”.  In practice this causes great problems.  Read a typical letter to an agony aunt from a young lady who is about to get married but is worried because she has had an unfortunate affair in the past that she doesn’t want her fiancé to find out about. 

In this poem, Christina Rossetti is recommending less encroaching relationships and she talks about the objection raised above in the agony column.  She tells her suitor that he might have loved, and even more passionately, someone else in the past, just as she, despite the restrictions of her life, has known some strong sensual moments.  It is folly to extend our possessiveness to a past, often imperfectly remembered, which is now gone and cannot be shared.  Her principal objection, however is that possessiveness of this intensity is inimical with personal freedom.
The poem is not the cold rejection of a lover's advances, but warm and teasing interplay between the sexes.


This lyrical poem is very lucid, expressed in natural language reflecting the rhythms of speech. It shows why many literary critics rank this Italian lady, Christina Rossetti, among the leading poets in the English language.

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 In the second column, I have put my attempt at an explanatory translation in French, but Rossetti's neat short lines did not give me enough space and I have lost sense of rhythm that I usually try to achieve.  I have certainly no illusions of writing poetry in my second column though!

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(1)

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(2)

If you promised, you might grieve

For lost liberty again

If I promised, I believe

I should fret(3) to break the chain


Let us be the friends we were

Nothing more but nothing less

Many thrive on frugal fare(4)

Who would perish of excess. 


Promises like pie-crust

Promises like pie-crust

Verses 1-2-5-6 are repeated

Promets-moi  aucunes promesses
Ainsi, je n’en promettrai pas à toi.
Gardons-nous tous les deux nos libertés
Jamais fausses et jamais vraies

Retenons-nous de jeter les dés
Libre de venir comme libre d'aller
Car je ne peux connaître ton passé
Et que peux-tu connaître du mien?

Toi, si chaud, t’aurais pu être une fois
Plus chaud envers quelque autre personne
Moi, si froide, c’est possible qu’une fois
J’aie pu voir le jour et sentir le soleil.

Qui nous montrera s’il en était
Vraiment ainsi, autrefois ?

L'image s’évanouit sur la glace
Et la bonne aventure n'est guère dite


Si tu promettais, tu pourrais te


De la liberté que tu as perdue 

Si moi je promettais, je suis sûre que
Je ferais de mon mieux rompre la chaîne

Soyons les amis que nous étions
Rien de plus, pourtant rien de moins
Bien des gens prospèrent de chère maigre,

 Qui périraient décidément de l’excès

  Promesses comme croûte de tartes
Promesses comme croûte de tartes







 This is a portrait of Christina Rossetti, painted by her very talented artist brother, Gabriel Dante Rossetti


1)      hold the die uncast = Robert tells me that the phrase “The die is cast” translates into French: “le sort en est jeté” or “les dés sont jetés”.  “Die” is the singular noun and “dice” is its plural, but most English people use the plural form for both.  If they say “Pass me the dice please” they only expect one of them.

2)      the fortune is not told - to tell some-one’s fortune = dire la bonne aventure à quelqu’un

3)      I should fret –to fret over something is to get upset, agitated about something.

4)      Frugal fare – “Fare” also has the meaning of food served and so this means a sparse diet.



In this poem, Christina Rossetti is rejecting the offer of love or even marriage, suggesting instead to her suitor that they remain as close friends. With the help of Wikipedia and different biographies I tried to find the identity of the man to whom these verses were addressed.  I was informed that there were three main suitors in her life. 

1)      In her late teens she was engaged to marry the painter, James Collinson, who, like her two brothers, Dante and William Rossetti, was a founding member of the renowned artistic movement that became known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (founded in 1848).  Both James Collinson and Christina Rossetti were devout Christians.  Christine Rosetti’s mother and her two daughters found worship in the Church of England congenial with their traditional Italian religion. In the mid nineteenth Century a new movement had arisen, particularly in the University of Oxford but also in some parishes of the Church of England, to reintroduce into it some its original rituals and practices from the Roman Church while retaining the independence of the English National Church from the Vatican.  They felt that the essentially Catholic Church of England that Henry VIII had established after his expulsion by the Pope on political grounds, had become too plain in the ensuing centuries as the country had striven for religious consensus by making compromises with Reformist doctrines and practices.

The Rossettis became deeply involved in this new Anglo-Catholic movement and for a time, her fiancé, James Collinson, although he had strong Roman Catholic connections, joined with Christina in her Anglican enthusiasms.  When, shortly afterwards in 1850, he reverted to Roman Catholicism, the background and principles of the Rossetti family made the couple’s intended marriage an impossibility.


2)      The second proposal of marriage to Christina came from Charles Bagot Cayley (1823 – 1883).  He was the younger brother of the respected mathematician Arthur Cayley. While he was studying at King’s College, London, he was taught Italian by Christina’s father, Gabriele Pasquale Giuseppe Rossetti.  In the early 1860s, Charles Cayley  and Christina fell very much in love but Christina felt unable to marry him.  Arthur Cayley was an agnostic and Christina could not have as a husband some-one who doubted the strong religious beliefs that directed her life.


3)      The Rossetti family was at the heart of the cultural life of Victorian London and the third man to propose marriage to Christina was the successful painter, John Brett. He also met with disappointment.

To which man did Christina Rossetti write this poem?

There can be little doubt that this poem was written to Charles Bagot Cayley.  In fact she wrote several other poems to him as well. Cayley was close friends with the Rossetti family throughout his adult life.  Christina’s brother William has provided us with  his detailed description and from his portrayal, we see Charles as a shy and unworldly intellectual with a cerebral sense of humour. “He smiled much, in a furtive sort of way, as if there were some joke which he alone appreciated in full, but into some inkling of which he was willing to induct a less perceptive bystander.” Charles took little care of his appearance so that the Rossettis affectionately nicknamed him the “wombat”. One of Christina’s poems to him was inspired by this nickname and had “The Wombat” as its title.

Charles Cayley had earlier attempted business ventures which had failed, and he devoted himself afterwards to the study of languages .  He produced often erudite and elaborately executed translations, such as of Dante’s “Divine Comedy", in which he successfully preserved Dante's rhyme scheme while using a relatively simple English style to accurately reflect Dante's own use of ordinary language.  His income from this work was very modest and he lived in relative poverty in lodgings in Central London.

Charles Cayley’s straitened circumstances created an obstacle to his marriage to Christina, even though her brother, William, offered to give them an allowance. The deciding factor, however, as mentioned previously, was Christina’s conviction that she could not enter into Christian marriage with some-one who doubted the existence of her God.

 In the last verse of the poem, she talks of their friendship continuing nonetheless. It is gratifying that they remained devoted to each other till his death on Christina Rossetti’s 53rd birthday, the 5th December 1883. She died eleven years later and her brother, William wrote that he “continued to be a living personality in her heart”, and she saved every memento of him.  As Christina lay dying in December 1894, she talked of Charles “in terms of almost passionate intensity.”