ristina Rossetti's poetry predominantly concerns her longing for Heaven, both as an end in itself and as an escape from the Earth that she denigrates. Quite clearly, she does not share her brother's enthusiasm for sensuality and materiality, but at the same time, she describes human experience as limited to the domain of materiality. The question we must ask, therefore, is how her poetry can use Heaven as its thematic center while lacking an appropriate vocabulary to characterize Heaven. As I shall argue, her occasional attempts to use matter to describe Heaven directly tend to cast their own validity into question, so instead she describes Heaven as the negation of Earth. This is not the real relationship of Heaven and Earth, however, for "God's presence antedates what else hath been," ("Later Life, 24:7); that is, Heaven should be the standard against which Earth is to be viewed, but our limitations force us to conceive of things backwardly.
"Paradise" conventionally depicts Heaven by means of earthly beauties that are said to exist in Heaven in superlative, perhaps even incomparable, forms. The first three stanzas are variations on this theme. The speaker claims to have perceived the earthly forms of flowers, rivers, and bird songs in Heaven. Having thus connected Heaven and Earth, the speaker then exalts Heaven by denigrating the earthly versions; earthly flowers are "faint," and the nightingale "cold," in comparison with their Heavenly equivalents. Ultimately, the objects that seemed to link Heaven and Earth demonstrate how great the difference between them is.
Starting with the fifth stanza two possible interpretations of the poem, and its view of Heaven, diverge from each other. Perhaps Rossetti intends a straightforward depiction of Heaven as an alternate physical space, more beautiful but at least comparable; however, I suggest that she may instead be suggesting the limitations of such a view, implying that Earthly and Heavenly experience are in fact incommensurable. Because the speaker is still in some ways limited by her human form, she cannot truly experience Heaven, even in her dream state; she "looked, but scarce could look within," (34). The lines ending the stanza, "Eye hath not seen, nor ear hath heard, nor heart conceived," (39-40) a quotation from 1st Corinthians 2:9, can be read in two ways. One could take these lines as expressing an accidental proposition, a claim that although that an eye or ear could theoretically perceive such things, there does not happen to be anything on earth quite so marvelous. However, on a stronger yet equally plausible reading; eyes and ears not only "hath" not perceived such things, they cannot. That these things cannot even be "conceived" suggests that they are not even the kind of thing that could be perceived, and that the earthly forms are merely analogous to divine forms.
In the final stanza, the speaker describes her longing for the eternal experience of Heaven.
I hope to see these things again,
But not as once in dreams by night;
To see them with my very sight.
These lines further develop the divergence discussed above. What is the difference between seeing "as once in dreams" and seeing "with my own sight"? In support of a straightforward reading, one could point out that, for one thing, dream experience is only momentary, whereas the real experience is eternal. This distinction implies that the two experiences differ merely in duration, not in quality. Another possible distinction is that in dreams we generally see things confusedly or dimly, as "through a glass, darkly," (1 Cor. 13:12) so to speak, whereas in death the speaker will be clear-sighted, although she will still be seeing essentially the same things. It seems unlikely, however, that the speaker could have been so moved by experiences that were less vivid then those of her mundane waking life.
If, on the other hand, we conceive of the speaker using "sight" metaphorically to describe a spiritual sensibility unknown to us, the difference between seeing Heaven as in a dream and seeing it "with my very sight," that is, through spiritual rather than material faculties of perception, becomes more profound. The dream vision does not present us with a photograph of what we can expect of Heaven, but rather a reflection of Heaven's radiance expressed in the highest terms that we can understand, terms which ultimately point to their own inadequacy.
Similarly, Christina Rossetti's yearning for Heaven in "De Profundis" uses the concept of spatial distance to express the speaker's emotional and spiritual relationship to Heaven, which is paradoxically both near and far. The speaker immediately expresses her impatience with earthly life:
Why is heaven built so far,
Oh why is earth set so remote?
In the lines following, she develops the metaphor of spatial distance between heaven and earth:
I cannot reach the nearest star
That hangs afloat.
I would not care to reach the moon,
One round monotonous of change;
Yet even she repeats her tune
Beyond my reach.
There are two ways to think of these lines. First, one could simply say that, as far away as the stars and the moon are, Heaven is still much farther beyond them. In this sense, the "nearest star" is a standard for judging distance; we know it to be light-years away, yet even if one could reach it, she would have made almost no relative progress towards heaven. However, if Rossetti simply meant that Heaven is extremely far away, a better standard would have been to use the farthest star, rather than the nearest. The choice of the "nearest star" suggests a spiritual aspect to the distance between Earth and Heaven. Heaven is always present in her thoughts, an immediate prospect rather than some forgettable abstraction. Because the distance between Heaven and Earth is spiritual rather than simply spatial, Heaven can be very near despite the tremendous gap (death) that lies between it and Earth. In other words, the very use of spatial standards to describe the relation between Earth and Heaven ends up demonstrating how ineffectual those standards are.
The fourth stanza clarifies the nature of the speaker's spiritual distance from Heaven. She is "bound with fleshly bands, / Joy, beauty, lie beyond my scope," asserting that her materiality is the restraint that prevents her from reaching Heaven. Materiality is a limit for the speaker, determining what she can, and more importantly, what she cannot experience (joy and beauty). By naming these unknown experiences, the speaker is not actually describing Heaven (how can she describe the beauty of Heaven if beauty lies beyond her scope?) but merely gesturing towards it. The last lines replace the expectation of a direct description of Heaven, which has been prohibited by the limit of the "fleshly bands," with the immediate experience of hope. Like the "nearest star," hope is a reality for the speaker, even though it does not provide any real content to the idea of the hoped for Heaven. Hope provides the bridge between the unknowable Heaven and her personal consciousness; it allows her to "strain [her] heart" towards something that she cannot intellectually know.
The above analyses of these poems show Christina Rossetti prima facie presenting Heaven and Earth as two states separated by a gap that can only be crossed by death but which are not essentially different from each other. If this were the case, both states would either be generally material states, or a comparable mixture of matter and spirit. As I have argued, however, a closer reading challenges the view of Heaven as material, and suggests that even in terms of spirit the two states are not comparable. In "Later Life" Rossetti shows that Heaven is logically and temporally prior to Earth, and is more real than Earth, but because she can only do so from a worldly, human perspective, she can therefore only depict Heaven in relation to Earth.
The speaker in "Later Life" primarily depicts herself as looking away from life, or perhaps more accurately looking through life to see what lies beyond. She continually "consider[s] what this life we lead / is not, and is" (Sonnet 25, 1-2) always first noticing what it "is not," seeing it as unreality, as the negation of Heavenly perfection. Similarly, her claim that "this life we live is dead for all its breath," (Sonnet 26, 9) reverses the usual relation of life and death and finds meaning in a realm outside of, and inaccessible from, her experience. The speaker's continual disparagement of the world would amount to nihilism, except that she believes in something beyond the world, something that is not the world. Her disgust for the worldly is expressed to such an extent that she almost seems to be looking forward to Heaven because it is not Earth than because it is Heaven. For example, in the seventeenth sonnet, she refers to a spiritual feeling as "something this foggy day, a something which / is neither of this fog nor of today," (1-2). Her excitement seems to arise more from the fact that this feeling is not of the world, then from the fact that it is Heavenly; after a short reverie about a "pleasant pebbly strand so far away" (6) her thoughts return to her present situation, as she complains "I am sick of where I am and where I am not," (9).
The eleventh sonnet focuses upon the divine presence in mortal experience, and the positive relationship between the speaker and Heaven. As with the hope of the speaker in "De Profundis," this divine presence has little content, but serves as a guide towards the spiritual path.
And gracious promises half understood,
and glories half unveiled, whereon to set
our heart of hearts and eyes of our desire;
uplifting us to longing and to love,
Luring us upward from this world of mire,
Urging us to press on and mount above
Ourselves and all we have had experience of." [ll. 7-13]
These "promises" and "glories" seem to have more content than hope alone, since they are at least "half understood" and "half unveiled," but they are still intended to draw the soul towards Heaven, rather than to give an accurate representation of it that can be conveyed through poetry. The emphasis on this passage is upon action, on the glories "uplifting," "luring," and "urging us to press on." The final line above reiterates the theme of matter and human experience as limitations that must be surpassed, rather than as means to greater knowledge or fulfillment.
Having provided, in the eleventh sonnet, a way for the matter-bound human to have at least the concept of Heaven and some sense of hope, the speaker proceeds, in the twenty-fourth sonnet, to explain the attitude the human should then take towards Heaven. She begins by arguing that although the speaker is necessarily trapped within the material world, she can be connected to Heaven through her heart, as the speaker of "De Profundis" uses hope as a means to be near to Heaven. However, it does not seem that she can take as much immediate solace from this, because rather than "catch[ing] at hope," ("De Profundis," 16) she must "send [her heart] before [her]" (Sonnet 24, 1).
"The wise do send their hearts before them to
dear blessed Heaven, despite the veil between;
The foolish nurse their hearts within the screen
of this familiar world, where all we do
or have is old, for there is nothing new;
That the heart is sent "despite the veil" suggests that the speaker will be to some degree separated from her heart, because she still cannot have experience of anything beyond the veil. Even this great accomplishment of the wise cannot provide any sort of grace on Earth, but can only prepare the way towards Heaven. As a result, the speaker is left in a state of unpleasant anticipation, of "weary impatience with [her] lot!" (Sonnet 17, 13). The most solace this new attitude can offer is that it allows the heart to remain undivided, whereas the foolish heart "hankers after Heaven, but clings to earth," (11).
Having considered the treatment of Heaven in these sonnets and in the two poems discussed above, we can give a more complete account of Christina Rossetti's conception of the relation between matter and spirit. Rossetti does not attempt to fuse and blend the material and spiritual, to paraphrase Pater. Spirit alone is what is important; Heaven is prior to Earth and human experience both in time and in being (as, for instance, Plato saw the material world as only a reflection of a higher world of forms). Heaven alone, with all matter cast away, is Rossetti's desire. However, as long as she is alive as a human, she can only experience that which her human body and faculties allow her to. Human experience may be nothing but fog, shadow, vanity, or a dream, but it is the only form of experience we can possible have in this life. She does not exalt the power of poetry to manifest the spiritual by means of the material, but uses the material because it is all she has access to. If, however, the speaker is truly limited to the material in her experience, she would not even be able to form the notion of Heaven. Therefore, Rossetti introduces the concepts of hope and of the half seen promises and glories given by God; we might say, furthermore, that the whole dream vision of "Paradise" may be an example of the glories. Because these glimpses of the divine exist in human experience, they cannot truly express the nature of the divine, and therefore tend to be devoid of explicit content, yet they instill a sense of purpose and direction into otherwise aimless lives. They direct the person to "send their hearts before them" to Heaven and to renounce the world, although they will still have to live in the world and will still be denied experience of the divine. Thus, Christina Rossetti presents the material and the spiritual realms as radically separate, even incommensurable, but provides a limited mechanism by which, in life, we can look forward to crossing the gap, and in death, we can escape our "fleshly bands."
The Rossettis and the Metaphysics of Spiritual Experience
- D. G. Rossetti's celebration of the unity of matter and spirit
- D. G. Rossetti's Typological Approach
- D. G. Rossetti's Poetry of NonStatement
Last modified 10 March 2007
Last modified 8 June 2007