o William Edmonston Aytoun, the satirist of Spasmodicism and contributing editor of Blackwood's Magazine, Christina Rossetti on 1 August 1854 forwarded six new poems, along with what most students of her work today would perceive as a startlingly self-assertive cover letter. In it she disingenuously describes herself as an "unknown and unpublished" writer, a "nameless rhymester." But speaking, as she says, "to a poet," she takes the liberty of insisting that Aytoun consider her works seriously. She stresses her own true identity as a poet, explaining: "I hope that I shall not be misunderstood as guilty of egotism or foolish vanity, when I say that my love for what is good in the works of others teaches one that there is something above the despicable in mine; that poetry is with me, not a mechanism, but an impulse and a reality; and that I know my aims in writing to be pure, and directed to that which is true and right." (Quoted by Sandars, Christina Rossetti, 85; original letter in the Yale University Library Special Collections).
Despite Rossetti's deliberate assertions that a commitment to the poetic vocation was of primary importance in her life, critics until very recently have been reluctant to view her as a writer fully devoted to her craft. She was, in fact, a determined and careful artist whose unremitting ambition was to fulfill her potential to generate perfected poetic artifacts, "pure" creative works "directed to that which is true and right" This passage further points to what emerges as the pivotal tension of her existence, arising from a conflict, not always easily resolved for Rossetti, between aesthetic and moral (indeed, often ascetic or even prophetic) impulses. Evidence from this letter written when she was twenty-three, and also [1/2] from earlier and later letters, confirms Rossetti's unrelenting belief in her own vocation as an artist. Yet critics still have not fully acknowledged her drive for aesthetic fulfillment, and, as a result, they have frequently been misguided in evaluating the precise aesthetic qualities, effects, and implications of her work. With the first two volumes of Rebecca Crump's projected three-volume variorum edition of Rossetti's poetry now available, however, we can begin a decades-overdue revaluation of Rossetti's methods of composition, her aesthetics, the value of her poems, and her true position in relation to the other major Victorian poets (As Jerome J. McGann has observed, Crump's new edition will have a "salutary, restorative effect" on Rossetti criticism [NER, 208]). But first, we must establish the proper sociohistorical and literary contexts in which to view her work.
Easy access to the previously scattered manuscript texts of Rossetti's poems, and to the emendations of those texts after their initial publication, at last provides an opportunity to scrutinize the artistic procedure of an enigmatic poet. For almost a century Rossetti has suffered severely from the critical approaches of biographical scholars who have frequently read her verse to lay bare the nature of her unfulfilled passions or to discover the identity of her innominate lover. 3 Readings of Christina Rossetti's works by such critics have depended on the fallacious assumption that her poetry is written for the most part in a confessional poetic mode, as that mode was reinforced by the atmosphere of earnestness inescapable for middle-class Victorians (For the most important recent discussions of this issue, see Ball, "Sincerity"; Davie, "On Sincerity from Wordsworth to Ginsberg"; Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity).Such, however, is by no means predictably the case with Rossetti's often experimental verse. Her poems are exploratory, presenting notably different views — from poem to poem and even from one version of a poem to another — of a given set of social, psychological, amatory, and artistic issues. Moreover, as only the most recent commentators have begun to indicate, her aesthetic values often derive from extremely diverse and sometimes ostensibly incompatible literary sources. 5
In light of the misplaced emphases of past scholarship (as well as the dearth of genuinely useful criticism), a full reassessment of Christina Rossetti is in order. We need a full-scale, dependable biography, an edition of her complete letters, an annotated bibliography of her reading, and clear-minded critical treatments of her previously unstudied poems (that is, the bulk of them). Such a reassessment has profound implications that may well force us to revise currently accepted approaches to Pre-Raphaelite poetry as a whole and to see more clearly than ever the Pre-Raphaelites' importance in providing aesthetic documents that constitute the transition between Romantic and modern literary modes.
The most important piece of work to propagate the myth of Rossetti's "romantic" sincerity and her artistic innocence is William Michael Rossetti's "Memoir," which appears in his collected edition of her Poetical Works [2/3], published ten years after Christina's death. There he promotes and extends a previously generated image of her poetic practice. He explains that
her habits of composition were entirely of the casual and spontaneous kind, from her earliest to her latest years. If something came into her head which she found suggestive of verse, she put it into verse. It came to her (I take it) very easily, without her meditating a possible subject, and without her making any great difference in the first from the latest form of the verses which embodied it.... What she wrote was pretty well known in the family as soon as her impeccably neat manuscript of it appeared ... but she did not show it about as an achievement, and still less had she, in the course of her work, invited any hint, counsel, or co-operation. (Works, lxviii-1aix)
William Michael was simply wrong — or at least significantly misguided — on both of the major points he introduces here. His sister revised in very important ways and, during her mature years, consistently sought criticism of her manuscripts from Dante Gabriel. In his memoir William Michael is, however, in part transmitting an image of his sister — as a pious and ascetic woman unconcerned with worldly achievements — that she herself had been at some pains to cultivate, especially after 1870. This image suppresses half the truth of Christina Rossetti's values and aspirations. Once dislodged, assumptions of her artistic innocence — that is, of the spontaneity and therefore craftlessness of her poetic production and the selflessness of her pursuits in general — must be radically qualified. We may then begin to discover the kind of values — emotional, social, and psychological, but especially literary — that inspire and inform Rossetti's poetry. From analysis of her texts and her revisions of them, along with epistolary and established biographical evidence, we can place Christina Rossetti with greater precision than before on the stage of rapidly changing aesthetic values in England from 1860 to 1900. We can also begin to understand more fully that the ways in which she diverges in her poems from the artistic practices and values of her brother, Dante Gabriel, and the other Pre-Raphaelites are more subtle and limited than we might expect, given the traditional image of Christina Rossetti as a withdrawn and highly religious woman who appeared to devote her life almost exclusively to her family and her God. In fact, for the most poetically productive years of her life — that is, until 1871 — she devoted it, equally and irrepressibly, to her art. [3/4]
Any revaluation of traditional portraits of Christina Rossetti's artistic procedures or of her complex sense of vocation as an artist might usefully begin with exploratory readings of one of her most heavily revised poems. "Maude Clare" is a poem with what is, for Christina Rossetti's works, a not unusual textual history. Her procedures for revising "Maude Clare" and the effects of her major changes in its text are similar to those of "Song," "Echo," "Bitter for Sweet," "The Poor Ghost," "A Royal Princess," "An Immurata Sister," "Cor Mio," and dozens of other poems in her published volumes. 7 Rebecca Crump concludes that the first (and only extant) manuscript of "Maude Clare" was produced "probably after December 8, 1857, and before April 14, 1858" (Poems, 1:244). The manuscript version of the poem contains forty-one stanzas. However, by the time it appeared in Once a Week on 5 November 1859, the work had been radically shorn to fifteen stanzas. Rossetti carefully pruned it once more before printing it as a poem of twelve stanzas in Goblin Market and Other Poems. In this 1862 version "Maude Clare" is a balladic narrative consisting entirely of dialogue except for the first stanza, which describes the poem's two central female characters, and the fourth stanza, which depicts Lord Thomas's reaction to the appearance at his wedding of Maude Clare, his jilted lover. The narrator's sympathies at the start of the poem are uncertain:
Out of the church she followed them
With a lofty step and mien:
His bride was like a village maid,
Maude Clare was like a queen (Poems, 1:44-45)
Introduced in the second stanza is Thomas's "lady mother," whose words suggest the central theme of the poem (fidelity versus betrayal in love) and raise questions crucial in evaluating the characters. Ambiguously, "With smiles, almost with tears." she pronounces this benediction upon the newly married couple:
"May Nell and you but live as true
As we have done for years;
"Your father thirty years ago
Had just your tale to tell;
But he was not so pale as you,
Nor I so pale as Nell." (45) [4/5]
At this point in our (first) reading we may well wonder if there is any extraordinary reason for the apparent tension between the mother's smiles and tears; whether the marital fidelity she cherishes might be an illusion; what beyond the usual anxieties might have caused the father to be pale on his wedding day; and what causes Tom's and his bride's pallor now. The narrator immediately provides the puzzling explanation that Tom "was pale with pride.' As for Nell, we are told that "Tom gazed long on pale Maude Clare / Or ever he kissed the bride," an action that might distress any woman in the midst of nuptials. In the next three stanzas Maude Clare presents her wedding gifts "To bless the hearth, to bless the board, / To bless the marriage bed,7 but the gifts are bitterly ironic because they include an amulet and another love token formerly given her by Tom: "'My half of the golden chain / You wore about your neck’" and
". . my half of the faded leaves
We plucked from budding bough,
With feet amongst the hly leaves,-
The lilies are budding now." (45)
By this point the reader perhaps feels little sympathy for Maude Clare because of her bad timing, the arrogance of her ironies, and her queenly mien, which suffers in comparison with the implied humility and ingenuousness of the bride "like a village maid." Tom's inability in the next stanza to "match her scorn with scorn," his faltering speech, and his poignant sense of shame (he "hid his face") make Maude Clare look all the worse. So does her immediate verbal assault on Nell, which makes us question Maude's own potential for fidelity rather than caprice:
"Take my share of a fickle heart,
Mine of a paltry love:
Take it or leave it as you will,
I wash my hands thereof." (46)
If her indifference is genuine, we condemn Maude Clare for unjustly disrupting the occasion and for vainly upstaging the married couple. If it is a mask, then she is stiff doing little service by her tantrum to herself or to the man she would be thought still to love. In the poem's last two stanzas, Nell reinforces most readers' initial, positive impressions of her. Unlike Maude Clare, she shows courage and tenacity along with her previously implied humility: [5/6]
"And what you leave" said Nell, "I'll take,
And what you spurn, I'll wear;
For he's my lord for better and worse,
And him I love, Maude Clare.
"Yea, tho' you're taller by the head,
More wise and much more fair;
I'll love him till he loves me best,
Me best of all, Maude Clare." (46)
Nell has the last words, and they significantly reflect our comparative valuation of Tom's two lovers. Many readers would retain little sympathy and perhaps even feel hostility for Maude Clare by the end of the poem.
I stress these points because the thrust of the manuscript text of "Maude Clare" is entirely different from the greatly reduced, austere, but powerful version I have just described. In the manuscript poem Maude Clare appears without question as the most sympathetic figure in the work, a woman betrayed and victimized by a capricious lover who chooses to marry for money. Throughout this version, narrative description of the setting and events dominates over dialogue, and as a result, the poem lacks the dramatic intensity of the 1862 version. Its discursiveness also detracts from the poem's emotional power, and much poetic energy is sacrificed — in narrative descriptions and additional dialogue — to provide signals for evaluating the characters.
Our sympathies are initially guided by conventional symbols that obtrude in the first manuscript stanza and that become relevant once the central characters are introduced:
The fields were white with lily buds,
White gleamed the lilied beck,
Each mated pigeon plumed the pomp
of his metallic neck.
By the seventh stanza the reader retrospectively identifies Maude Clare, whose "cheeks were pale like pearls," with the purity and potential of the "lily buds" but also with their traditional symbolic resonances implying innocence and self-sacrifice. By contrast, we identify the soon-mated Nell with the detached and complacent, wealthily "plumed" pigeon of line four. Her "metallic" neck clinches our identification of her with money and further suggests insensitivity and invulnerability. Apparently Nell is like Thomas in her callousness. As early as stanza four Maude Clare identifies [6/7] him clearly as"'a false false love of mine."' His behavior, we learn two stanzas later, has desolated Maude Clare, who now retains "never a sparkle in her eyes / That had wept the yesternight." Moreover, we learn in stanza seven that Tom has deserted this dazzling, lilylike maiden for "a new love frank and fair, / . . . who lacked the witching winning grace / Of his old love pale Maude Clare" (245).
In this version of the poem, as in the published one of 1862, Tom is desperately embarrassed by Maude's presence at the wedding, but here he suffers guilt for a much clearer reason:
He cared not to meet her eyes again
And he dared not touch her hand,
For Maude Clare for all she was so fair
Had never an inch of land. (245)
Then one stood up to pledge the bride
With hint and waggish smile,
Yet tho' his words were for the bride
He glanced at Maude the while.
"Health to the bride and length of days
"And hopes fulfilled and wealth." (246)
Even Lord Thomas "turned to young Maude Clare / Before he drank the health." But despite her success in drawing the attention and sympathies of those about her, after all the feasting, singing, gift-giving, and benedictions, Maude Clare suffers unspeakably as she turns to address the couple: "But oh her heart must ache," we are told by the narrator in a fine that anticipates and undercuts any suspicion that Maude is arrogant or unjustified in her recriminations. After her words to the couple (the same as those of the 1862 version), Maude Clare — as if to emphasize an already clear point — adds that Nell "has purchased" her husband "with gold," words that might well have reminded Victorian readers of Tennyson's Maud, published only two years before Christina Rossetti's poem was first written.
The manuscript poem ends with three rather than two stanzas of re- [7/8] sponse from Nell. These differ entirely from those of the 1862 version. In them Nell's indignation seems tellingly lame, her protest too much taken up with advice delivered safely after the fact:
But "Fie for shame . . . [my] Lady Maude,"
Nell cried with kindling cheek:
"It's shame on me who hear the words,
"It's shame on you who speak.
"I never guessed you loved my Lord,
"I never heard your wrong;
"You should have spoken before the priest
"Had made our tie so strong;
"You should have stood up in Church
"To claim your rights before;
"You should have parted us in the Church
"Or kept silence evermore." (246-47)
Here Nell displays only callousness in her defensive, legalistic reply to Maude Clare, rather than the tenacity and boldness that make her the more attractive of Tom's lovers in the 1862 version.
These two texts of the same poem by Christina Rossetti tell us a good deal about her habits of composition and make clear the inadequacy of merely thematic approaches to her poems. The differences between the manuscript poem and the 1862 version also reveal much about Rossetti's rigorous aesthetic values, her central concern with artistic efficacy, and her ability to compose with a sense of artistic detachment that belies assumptions of her poetry's sincerity as well as critical propensities to interpret its contents biographically. Arguments that this poem is dramatic rather than lyrical, and thus not subject to "sincere" impulses, are irrelevant, for Rossetti's ruthless artistry was applied impartially to every kind of poetry she wrote.
Rossetti's famous "Song" ("Oh roses for the flush of youth"), for instance, appears in its published form as a lyric lament acknowledging the speaker's resignation to an unfulfilled life and an early death, aptly represented by her choice of "withered leaves" of ivy as a memorial, rather than any traditional floral symbol of a more meaningful life (roses, laurel, violets, or bay). Our attention is focused finally, not on the barely sketched character of the speaker or her fate, but on the tradition of flower symbolism itself, especially as it is employed in literature of "the old time" (Poems, 1:40).
[8/9] Although the title of the original version of the work, "A Song in a Song" suggests the self-conscious literary concerns of the poem, the stanzas themselves (the first three of which are deleted in the final version)draw attention away from the issue of traditionary symbolism and its proper uses. The poem instead erects a dramatic relationship between a different speaker and his dead beloved; he now loiters (Re Keats's knight at arms) in expectation of his own death: "I sit and sing her song, / And muse upon the past. " The first two stanzas emphasize the beloved's former beauty and her lover's despair at her unexpected death. The poem's final version is thus radically reformed and refocused upon predominantly aesthetic issues rather than those of elegiac or courtly love poetry.
Revisions of "The Bourne" demonstrate an even more drastic redirection than those of "Song." A devotional poem first written in 1854 in twelve stanzas, the work was reduced to two stanzas by the time of its first publication, nine years later, in Macmillan's Magazine. The published version contained only the second and fifth of the original stanzas. The first version is clumsily entitled "There remaineth therefore a rest," and with a good deal of overwriting it describes a soul's experience during what was known to Victorian millenarians and Anabaptists as "Soul Sleep," the waiting period between a person's death and resurrection at the Second Coming. (For a fuller commentary on Rossetti's acceptance and employment of the doctrine of "Soul Steep," see R.P. A central biblical text from which the doctrine of soul-sleep or psychopannychism originates (but which McGann does not cite) is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17.) In this version Rossetti tediously rehearses the details of anticipated experience during Soul Sleep: the "cool" bed of the grave; the slumber and renewal that take place there; the equality of all the dead in this condition; an end to physical suffering; and the incipient process of fulfillment and perfection that culminates with the soul "Struggling panting up to God" (Poems, 1:280).
The published version of 1863 has been radically pared by means of simple but careful selection among the earlier stanzas. The altered title itself is a brilliant addition that reflects a new semiotic concern in the poem. As a pun, it is multivalent, at once suggesting continuity ("a stream or brook") and division ("a boundary"), an ending ("goal") and a beginning ("born"). The text retains from the original a thematic emphasis on the transitoriness and vanity of earthly life, but that emphasis surprisingly dissolves in the closing third of the poem. There we learn that, in the grave, "a very little girth / Can hold round what once the earth / Seemed too narrow to contain" (Poems, 1:142). The emphasis in these lines upon form and dimension, of course, introduces an insistence on spiritual infinitude and the impossibility of its full realization during earthly life. At the same time, however, the reader's attention is directed to the potential for a corollary expressional infinitude inherent in the medium of the poem [9/10] itself. Like the remains of the originary body (poet or speaker), the poem is "a very little girth" (in the new version) and yet "contains" our transcendent spirituality Indeed, expression of the latter is demonstrably dependent on the existence of the former. The "bourne," at which the powers of spirit and language meet and the one becomes embedded in the other, is the self-reflexive poem. Thus, as a symbol of the boundary between physical and spiritual worlds, as a locus for knowledge of eventual spiritual fulfillment, as an imaginative space where sensations of such fulfillment might be generated, and as the vehicle for transmuting all perceptions of prospective rebirth into material form, the poem itself is "Tbe Bourne."
In an unpublished letter of 1888, responding to questions from an anonymous admirer, Rossetti retrospectively explained one aesthetic principle that was central, during her early years, to the developing poetic style revealed in revisions of such poems as "Maude Clare" "Song," and "The Bourne" She also forcefully acknowledged the importance of her brother Dante's tutelage. She explained: "Perhaps the nearest approach to a method I can lay claim to was a distinct aim at conciseness; after a while I received a hint from my sister that my love of conciseness tended to make my writing obscure, and I then endeavoured to avoid obscurity as well as diffuseness. In poetics." she concluded insistently, "my elder brother was my acute and most helpful critic." (letter, Troxell Collection, Princeton University Library.)
Rossetti's attempt to approach her ideal of "conciseness" is manifest in the revisions of "Maude Clare," "Song," and "The Bourne" that I have reviewed, but it is everywhere visible in her best poems as well. Pursuit or that single ideal, however, leads directly to ostensibly subordinate characteristics of her poetic style as well as to corollary aesthetic values that dominate the poems. It leads to tautness and a directness of expression, a deceptive simplicity of poetic surfaces that contrasts significantly with the "arduous fullness," the density and involutions of Dante Rossetti's style; it leads to dramatic intensity, to deliberate ambiguity, and, even more notably, to Christina Rossetti's often open-ended symbolic modes of expression (for instance, in Goblin Market, "A Birthday," "Up-Hill," and The Prince's Progress). It leads, also, to a thematic structure in her poems that is densely, though often ambiguously, allusive. The quest for conciseness often compels her to generate meaning by manipulating allusions to Plato, the Bible, Saint Augustine, Dante, Petrarch, Herbert, Crashaw, Maturin, Coleridge, Keats, Tennyson, and to troubadour traditions. One typical thematic mode of her poetry, then, is intertextual, directing her reader away from the apparently simple surface meanings of her poems and toward historically layered literary statements and traditions, consideration [10/11] of which complicates, amplifies, and reifies the meanings of her own verse. Unlike her brother's densely wrought poems, the diffusive effects of Christina Rossetti's poetry come as often from explicit or implied literary allusions and parodic procedures as from recurrent image patterns, symbolism, or play with language. The demands her poetry places upon its readers, therefore, are hardly best served by approaching her works as veiled autobiography, or by neo-Freudian interpretations of them, or by single-minded new-critical — rather than critically pluralistic — methodologies. (See William Fredeman's remarks on the biographical approach to Rossetti criticism [("'From Insult to Protect'" and "Impediments and Motives"].)
At this point, one might well ask how criticism of Rossetti — and, by implication, discussions of other ostensibly autobiographical poets — is to proceed if exclusively thematic, psychobiographical, and noncontextual readings of her poems are proscribed. Some progress has been made already by recent critics who suggest the importance of purely literary considerations in reading Rossetti's poetry (and, by implication, some of Dante Rossetti's important poetry). From their earliest adolescent days, during which they wrote poetry and fiction in an atmosphere of sibling competition encouraged by their father and by their grandfather Polidori (who promised publication on his home press), the Rossetti children all possessed a highly literary self-awareness. It is no coincidence that all four children, including the Anglican nun, Maria, published major literary or critical works during their lives. Significantly, all published on Dante, and, of course, both Christina and Dante Gabriel allude repeatedly in their letters and works to Dante and the literary tradition he subsumed and perpetuated." (The critical and editing activities of William Michael Rossetti are well known, but his translation of Dante is not. And Victorianists at large are even less familiar with Maria Rossetti's A Shadow of Dante, which Christina admired enormously (and which was widely used as a classroom text in the nineteenth century). See FL, 75, 171.)
There are a number of potentially fruitful approaches to the Rossettis' poetry. One, already touched upon by Jerome McGann, Barbara Fass, and Joan Rees among the major critics, is to look at the Rossettis' productions as self-conscious attempts to appropriate and extend specific literary traditions. One of these is obviously that of medieval French love poetry, which began with the troubadours and culminated with Petrarch, Dante, and the Renaissance sonneteers." (Rossetti reveals her extensive interest in the troubadour roots of Petrarchan and Dantean tradition in the preface to her sonnet sequence, Monna Innominata, which was composed over perhaps as long as a fifteen-year period (see Rees, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 152-53).) Analysis of their works in this context would expose the Rossettis' self-conscious and detached use (and pastiche) of specific forms and conventions of love poetry.
Another approach especially relevant to Christina Rossetti's work is sociohistorical and uses incontrovertible biographical data and historical contexts to illuminate her works. Her letters, hundreds of which remain unpublished, are an invaluable source of information, for they reflect and comment specifically upon her artistic ambitions, her poetic methods, her reading, her acquaintances, [11/12] and her responses to political, social, and religious issues of the day. A third approach to Rossetti criticism would investigate her use of the set of traditions surrounding Romantic "sincerity," especially as these appear in Blake, Keats, and Coleridge and as they are absorbed by Romantic and Victorian novelists. These traditions very often deliberately mask the detachment of the writer who, largely through his or her artificially "sincere" tone, elicits specific emotional, moral, intellectual, and aesthetic responses from the reader.
Concern with this latter tradition introduces a fourth, complementary approach to the poetry of both Rossettis, one that perceives the primary purpose in their literary efforts to be the generation of the most beautiful and affective artifacts possible. At the base of such efforts in every case are clear aesthetic values, which may vary in emphasis from work to work. In the case of the 1862 text of "Maude Clare," for instance, the values that dominate are dramatic and emotional intensity, ambiguity, and irony. These must, of course, be distinguished from the poem's central moral values of humility, fidelity, and courage. In all of Rossetti's significant poems, however, thematic (or "moral") considerations are coterminous with, if not subordinated to, aesthetic ones: sometimes even the possibility of deriving clear themes or ideas from a work is undercut. Art, comprehensive of relevant traditions, becomes the supreme value, as Dante Rossetti suggests in his introductory sonnet to The House of Life, in "Love's Last Gift" from the same sequence, and even in such apparently polemical poems as "The Burden of Nineveh." At the center of the latter work, transcending the histories of specific men's passions, fears, ideals, and ideologies (as well as those of their civilizations), is the winged beast of Nineveh, an infinitely interpretable work of art.
As we know, Dante Rossetti, the reluctant aesthete, was the most frequent and effective critic of his sister's manuscript poems. Christina alluded to him repeatedly as her mentor, and, as the revisions of "Maude Clare" suggest, she was, like him, ultimately more interested in the quality and effectiveness of a poem than in conveying themes or in being sincere and self-expressive. The extent to which artistic perfection was the preeminent concern in Christina Rossetti's poetry, as it was in her brother's, was perceived by early commentators like Arthur Symons, Virginia Woolf, and Justine DeWilde but has been ignored by most of her critics for the last fifty years.(See Symons, "Christina Rossetti," in Two Literatures, 48; Woolf, Second Common Reader, 264; and DeWilde, Christina Rossetti.) Yet her irrepressible concern with the artistry of her works and with her own artistic vocation is unmistakable in her early letters. After her grandfather Polidori printed two volumes of her childhood poems, one in 1842 when she was twelve years old and one in 1847; after she succeeded in placing two poems in the Athenaeum in 1848; and after seven of her works appeared pseudonymously in The Germ during 1850, [12/13] Rossetti subsequently endured a frustrating hiatus in her publishing career. From 1851 until 1861 she saw only two of her poems and one short story appear in print, despite the self-confidence of her letters of submission to potential publishers.
The sense of urgency with which she pursued artistic success is, perhaps, most powerfully revealed in the second half of the 1854 letter to Aytoun quoted earlier. In an emotionally intense conclusion, she remarks,
I do not blush to confess that ... it would afford me some gratification to place my productions before others, and ascertain how far what I do is expressive of mere individualism, and how far it is capable of approving itself to the general sense. It would be a personal favour to me if you would look into the enclosed with an eye not inevitably to the waste paper basket, and a further obligation if, whatever be the result, you would vouchsafe me a few words as to the fate of the verses. I am quite conscious that volunt[ary]eer contributors have no right to expect this of an editor; I ask it simply as a courtesy. It is mortifying to have done something sincerely, offer it in a good faith; and be treated as a "non avenue." [Quoted in Sandars, 86]
A similarly solemn dedication to her art also surfaces in brief comments responding to William Michael Rossetti's queries in 1849 about progress with her poem, "Three Nuns." She responds that "my dreary poem is not completed, but a few appropriate stanzas have been added since my leaving town. You will easily believe that, whatever other merit it lacks, it possesses unity of purpose in a high degree" (FL, 6).
Despite such passages in her letters, however, and despite prevalent opinion among her critics and biographers, Christina Rossetti was by no means always as earnest as this letter or her later petition to Aytoun suggests. On numerous epistolary occasions she demonstrates irrepressible wit. Yet her humorous self-inflations or self-deprecations most often serve to reinforce perceptions of her sense of vocation as an artist. Writing to William in 1850, for instance, while still enjoying the glow kindled by her prospective appearances in The Germ, she gives this advice: "Do you know, I seriously urge on your consideration the increase of prose and decrease of poetry in the Germ, the present state of things strikes me as most alarming. Should all other articles fail, boldly publish my letters; they would doubtless produce an immense sensation. By hinting that I occupy a high situation in B — ck--m P — l — e, substituting initials and asterisks for all names, and adding a few titles, my correspondence might have quite a success." (Christina Rossetti to William Michael Rossetti, 31 Jan. 1850, Troxell Collection, Princeton University Library.)
[13/14] Three years later, in a similar vein, she fantasizes that the depleted family fortunes might be reconstituted if justice were truly done to her short story, "Nick," then circulating. This could be accomplished, she insists, if only the story were submitted along with her own portrait: "a first-rate business head perceiving at a glance its capabilities, has [the portrait] engraved prefixed to ["Nick"], and advertised ... all over the civilized world" with wonderful success. She prophesies that "The book spreads like wild-fire. Addey at the end of 2 months, struck by a late remorse, and having an eye to future contingencies, sends me a second cheque for £200; on which we subsist for a while. At the publication of the 20th edition Mrs Addey (a mild person of few words) expires; charging her husband to do me justice. He promises with one suppressed sob. Next day a third cheque for £2000 reaches me. This I divide; assigning half to Maria for her dowry, and handing the rest to Mama. I then collapse. Exeunt Omnes." (Christina Rossetti to William Michael Rossetti, 13 Aug. 1853, Troxell Collection, Princeton University Library).
Letters such as these facetious ones, along with those earnestly soliciting publication of her works and yet others of the 1860s playfully expressing envy of her visibly more successful, rival "poetesses" (especially Jean Ingelow), expose a Victorian woman with a clear vision of her vocation; she was anxious, if not determined, to make that vision real. Yet, although Christina Rossetti lived until 1894, most of her best poems were produced (though not necessarily published) before 1871, when she nearly died of Graves' disease. Afterwards, she led a virtually cloistered life in London, where any foray beyond the bounds of her home in Torrington Square was, as she repeatedly explained to her correspondents, "formidable." After 1871 she published only one volume of new poems (in 1881). She expended most of her creative energies during the last twenty years of her life in writing seven books of devotional prose or religious commentary. In 1874 she explained in a letter to her publisher, Alexander MacMillan, who was urging her to compile a new volume of poems, that "the possibility of your thinking proper some day to reprint my two volumes [Goblin Market and The Prince's Progress], is really gratifying to me as you may suppose; but as to additional matter, I fear there will be little indeed to offer you. The fire has died out, it seems; and I know of no bellows potent to revive dead coals. I wish I did." (4 Feb. 1874, in Packer, Rossetti-Macmillan Letters, 99.) The insistently prosaic echoes here of Coleridge's lament in "Dejection: An Ode" would not have been lost on either "the staunch Mac" or Christina herself. But what is also forcefully apparent to later readers of this letter is Rossetti's refusal in any way to compromise her artistic integrity for fame or profit.
[14/15] In William Michael's memoir of his sister, he remarks, this time without any mistake,
It may be asked — Did Christina Rossetti consider herself truly a poetess, and a good one? Truly a poetess, most decidedly yes; and, within the range of her subject and thought, and the limits of her executive endeavour, a good one. This did not make her in the least conceited or arrogant as regards herself, nor captious as to the work of others; but it did render her very resolute in setting a line of demarcation between a person who is a poet and another person who is a versifier. Pleadings of in misericordiam were of no use with her, and she never could see any good reason why one who is not a poet should write verse in meter. (Works, 1xix)
The extent to which Christina Rossetti did insist upon the unique capabilities of the artist, as well as the autonomy of the artist's imagination and creative powers, is clear from her commentaries on her own poems. Paradiginatic is a passage from a letter written by her on 13 March 1865 to Dante Rossetti, who was at the time supervising her revisions of poems that would appear in The Prince's Progress (1866). Her comments in the passage concern the poem "Under the Rose" (in 1875 retitled "The Iniquity of the Fathers upon the Children"). Some readers might incorrectly assert that this is a surprisingly worldly poem for Christina Rossetti. It is a 545-line monologue spoken by a young woman, Margaret, who, in recalling events of her past life, has concluded that she is the illegitimate daughter of a kindly, unmarried aristocratic woman. In order to retain her reputation, Margaret deduces, this eminent lady was forced to repudiate Margaret at her birth. At the end of "Under the Rose," Margaret, now ostensibly her mother's servant but virtually an adopted child, determines to lead a life of resignation and renunciation, keeping her mother's secret but thereby also fully retaining her own autonomy.
Judging from Christina Rossetti's response to him, her brother was dismayed by the "unpleasant-sided subject" of this poem, but more especially by the fact that it came from a woman's pen. Rossetti's reaction to Dante's critique of "Under the Rose" is as illuminating as anything she wrote about her own art, or, indeed, about any other author's work. Not only does it reveal her perceptions of the relationship between art and the commonly accepted sexual roles of men and women, but it also makes explicit her understanding of the relations between poetry and the personal experience of the author. Although she begins the passage with the [15/16] self-effacing rhetoric typical of her, she concludes on a strongly assertive note. To Dante Gabriel she writes,
U.the R. herewith ... I meekly return to you, pruned and rewritten to order. As regards the unpleasant-sided subject I freely admit it: and if you think the performance coarse or what-not, pray eject it ... though I thought U. the R. might read its own lesson, but very likely I misjudge. But do you know, even if we throw U.the R. overboard, and whilst I endorse your opinion of the unavoidable and indeed much-to-be-desired unreality of women's work on many social matters, I yet incline to include within female range such an attempt as this: where the certainly possible circumstances are merely indicated as it were in skeleton, where the subordinate characters perform (and no more) their accessory parts, where the field is occupied by a single female figure whose internal portrait is set forth in her own words. Moreover the sketch only gives the girl's own deductions, feelings, semiresolutions; granted such premises as hers, and right or wrong it seems to me she might easily arrive at such conclusions: and whilst it may truly be urged that unless white could be black and Heaven Hell my experience (thank God) precludes me from hers, I yet don't see why "the Poet mind" should be less able to construct her from its own inner consciousness than a hundred other unknown quantities (Troxell, Three Rossettis, 143.)
The keynote of this passage appears in its final sentence, where her description of "the Poet mind" is reminiscent of Keats's ideals of the chameleon poet and of "negative capability." But Rossetti's full commentary is fascinating in several respects. For one thing, her rhetorical strategy is cunning; more significantly, the strategy contributes to our understanding of Christina Rossetti's patterns of behavior in life as well as the values that inexorably support those patterns. Her apparent indifference to the publication of this poem is genuine and reflects her relentless quest for autonomy and self-sufficiency. This quest at last resulted in her virtually complete withdrawal from active life, as well as her reliance upon "the Poet mind"--the creative imagination that generates experience — to sustain her, to enrich her, and to serve as both a buffer and a mechanism for mediation between her and the external world that threatened always to encroach upon her independence.
Like her friend A.C. Swinburne in the second half of his career, Christina Rossetti became an ascetic aesthete, whose spheres of experience, [16/17] both secular and religious, were largely internal and imaginative. Both modes of experience were grounded, however, in external — socially and historically "real" — institutions, those of artistic tradition and the church. Her creative impulse oscillated between two ideal passions, whose respective objects were man and God. Both passions were intense and involved suffering, but the experience of them made her always accessible to exquisite, ethereal sensations of the spirit and emotions, sensations akin to the "wakeful anguish of the soul" memorialized by Keats. For Rossetti, only thralldom to art and to religion could generate ideal experiences of this sort that transform and transcend experience in the "real" world. Because of the capacities of the "Poet mind" Christina Rossetti could (unlike Keats) happily renounce life in the world for the superior life of the imagination. Such a life, of course, allows for the sublimation of physical ills and the manipulation of moral values, while ensuring freedom from censure, oppression, and responsibility. The religious aesthete, in life, enjoys the "paradise within" while preparing for the more permanent Paradise of the afterlife. For Christina Rossetti art and prayer became the primary modes, not merely of self-expression, but of existence. Rather than attempting to mirror reality, they subsumed it.
Much of Rossetti's poetry, therefore, abjures both didacticism and sincerity, actively resisting autobiographical readings. Many of her poems are self-reflexive, directing our interest to a fictive personality (as in "Under the Rose" and "Maude Clare"); to the process of creation; to specific literary works and general literary traditions that provide the enabling conditions for her own work; or to the created artifact itself, rather than to any external reality or extrinsic concerns. Such poems sometimes appropriately reveal her ability to be playful and ironically detached, to parody the kinds of issues her poetry raises. Such is the case in a poem like "Winter: My Secret." In it the speaker confesses to wearing masks:
I tell my secret? No indeed, not I.
. . . . . .
I cannot ope to everyone who taps.
And let the draughts come whistling thro' my hall;
Come bounding and surrounding me,
Come buffeting, astounding me,
Nipping and clipping thro' my wraps and all.
I wear my mask for warmth.
(Poems, 1:47) [17/18]
And we are taunted in the last stanza:
Perhaps some languid summer day,
When drowsy birds sing less and less,
And golden fruit is ripening to excess,
If there's not too much sun or too much cloud,
And the warm wind is neither still nor loud,
Perhaps my secret I may say,
Or you may guess. (47)
We find the clue to understanding this enigmatic poem in its self-parodic tone. The extraordinary fact here is that the work builds a thoroughly engaging relationship between the speaker and reader out of nothing substantial. No events transpire or are described, and even the "secret" has no extrinsic reference. The reader's curiosity and affection for the speaker are generated entirely by means of a fictive enigma that compels our interest. The poem thus becomes a commentary upon itself, upon the "secret" power of art. It also becomes, on an admittedly small scale, an exemplification of artistic perfection, a self-sufficing artifact. That such may be its design is indicated by the clear allusions, in the first three lines of the last stanza, to Keats's odes "To a Nightingale" and "To Autumn," both of which are concerned with acts of poetic creativity and the acceptance of created beauty (whether imaginative or natural) for its own sake.
Like many of Rossetti's poems, "Winter: My Secret" skillfully indulges in linguistic, formal, and metaphorical play. Such works by her are often unsettling because of their self-conscious experimentation and their aesthetic as well as substantive challenges to convention. Yet, unlike "Winter: My Secret," these works frequently close in conventionally settled ways — with the thematic, dramatic, or psychological tensions resolved. Closure, however, very often embodies a literal resignation of the rebelliousness of language, themes, and characterization within the works, a giving over of the potential evoked in the poems for destabilizing the conventional world (of language, social expectations, literary conventions) in which the poems are usually set.
The much-discussed dualisms, contraries, and oppositions in Rossetti's poems open up a space for decoding the world as we know it or expect it to be, and for encoding a new world, or a new apprehension of the old world's genuine truths or possibilities for change. But this potential is often abruptly truncated in the end by a deliberate reintroduction of the conventional world and expectations associated with it. Such a pattern of development enables varied and opposed reader-responses, including re [18/19] lief that conventional "order"or reality is restored; disappointment that a promised new order remains unrealized; or a synthesis of both of these responses, in which emotional, psychological, and aesthetic dissatisfactions evoked by the conclusion refocus reader attention on the generative space that the poem has made visible. The pattern even of Rossetti's nondevotional poems is thus eschatological: by drawing attention to the open-endedness of language, of literary traditions, of social or amatory possibility, she thrusts the reader into a new world that is at first disorienting. But he or she is finally delivered back into the old world that was briefly deconstructed or subverted. Some of Rossetti's best-known and most ambitious poems, including Goblin Market, Monna Innominata, and "The Lowest Room" operate in this way, as does her early novella, Maude. Even the larger structure of her volumes of poetry usually reflects this dialectical mindset, which insistently evokes a concern with purely aesthetic matters by means of the tensions it generates. The counterpoint between the "secular" and devotional poems in her three major volumes of verse (published in 1862, 1866, and 1881), for instance, effectively directs a reader's attention to the distance between the adventurous and the conventional, and finally to the issues of aesthetic modes and motives — of beauty and rhetoric — that displace other potential critical issues, such as thematics, biography, or history.
Even a wholly undisguised ideal of self-sufficing and self-reflexive artistry is clear in a number of Christina Rossetti's poems, though sometimes that ideal is equated with a more conventional ideal of beauty, as it is in "A Summer Wish":
Live all thy sweet life thro',
Sweet Rose, dew-sprent,
Drop down thine evening dew
To gather it anew
When day is bright:
I fancy thou wast meant Chiefly to give delight.
Sing in the silent sky,
Glad soaring bird,
Sing out thy notes on high
To sunbeam straying by
Or passing cloud;
Heedless if thou art heard
Sing thy full song aloud. [19/20]
Oh that it were with me
As with the flower;
Blooming on its own tree
For butterfly and bee
Its summer morns:
That I might bloom mine hour
A rose in spite of thorns.
Oh that my work were done
As birds that soar
Rejoicing in the sun:
That when my time is run
And daylight too,
I so might rest once more
Cool with refreshing dew. [Poems, 1:42-43]
The symbols in this poem are open ended, of course, but the work might easily be seen to advocate the value of beauty created "chiefly to give delight" and its language insists on the exuberance, the "rejoicing," that accompanies the act of (poetic) creation: "Heedless if thou art heard / Sing thy full song aloud."
"A Summer Wish" also manifests a pervasive characteristic in Rossetti's poetry, both secular and religious: her use of what Ruskin in her own day designated "the pathetic fallacy." The projection by a speaker of a state of mind and emotion upon what would normally be seen as external, objective, and nonfeeling is clearly a solipsistic poetic strategy that reconstitutes "the world" and empirical conceptions of it. (Ruskin saw the practice as originating with the Romantics.) In this way intellectual and emotional responses displace "the world" and regenerate it as artifact or aesthetic object, "a thing of beauty."Ruskin described poets who in this way anthropomorphically impute fife to the object-world as "Reflective or Perceptive." In that category he included Wordsworth, Keats, and Tennyson, poets whose work was necessarily limited by its very modes of generation and operation. As Harold Bloom has observed, Ruskin's "Perceptive" poets were later termed "Aesthetic" poets by Walter Pater. They comprise "not a second order but the only poets possible in the universe of death, the Romantic world" in which Rossetti lived (Bloom, Walter Pater, 6). Pater's description of aesthetic poets appeared first in his 1868 review, "Poems by William Morris," and became famous when published as part of the conclusion to The Renaissance.
[20/21] Analysis of the body of Christina Rossetti's poetry in its proper literary historical contexts demonstrates that, like Morris's work, hers embodies important characteristics of "aesthetic poetry," as Pater describes them, and it does so precisely by means of the dominant tensions upon which it is constructed: between beauty and death; between love of man and love of God; between the ephemeral and the eternal; between the sensory and the transcendent. It "projects above the realities of its time a world in which the forms of things are transfigured. Of that world [it] takes possession, and sublimates beyond it another still fainter and more spectral, which is, literally an artificial or "earthly paradise." It is a finer ideal, extracted from what in relation to any actual world is already an ideal" (Sambrook, 105).
What of course distinguishes Rossetti's work from that of Morris and other "aesthetic" poets is that her "finer ideal" is extrapolated largely from Christian texts and doctrine, especially from Neoplatonic reifications of Christian orthodoxy. Indeed, Plato's most distinctive characteristic according to Pater is equally Rossetti's: an "aptitude for things visible, with the gift of words, empowers [her] to express, as if for the eyes, what except to the eye of the mind is strictly invisible, what an acquired asceticism induces [her] to rank above, and sometimes, in terms of harshest dualism, opposite to, the sensible world." (Plato and Platonism, 139-40). For Pater, Plato is "a seer who has a sort of sensuous love of the unseen."
Rossetti's amatory poetry, also like that of "aesthetic" poets, often returns in setting, or merely in theme, to a "profound medievalism," in which "religion shades into sensuous love, and sensuous love into religion." Dominated by a frequently dreamlike atmosphere, poems from "The Convent Threshold," "Three Nuns" and The Prince's Progress to "An Old World Thicket," "Paradise," and Monna Innominata seem to operate largely in "a Kingdom of reverie": "Of religion this poetry learns the art of directing towards an imaginary object sentiments whose natural direction is towards objects of sense. Hence a love defined by the absence of the beloved, choosing to be without hope, protesting against all lower uses of love, barren, extravagant, antinomian. It is the love which is incompatible with marriage" (Sambrook, 106-7). In the great bulk of the poems, too, there appears "the continual suggestion, pensive or passionate, of the shortness of life ... the sense of death and the desire of beauty; the desire of beauty quickened by the sense of death." Rossetti's poetry can sometimes even appear to assume "artistic beauty of form to be an end in itself"(Sambrook, 113).
In these Paterian terms, then, we can perceive aestheticism as a fundamental impulse in a large number of Rossetti's works. Her poetry does, of course, embody several major "thematic" concerns. These include the agonizing conflicts between erotic passion and love of God; the manifold beauties of nature; the need to renounce earthly love and all the world's vanities to await death and salvation. Yet these concerns are often subordinated to her interest in attaining an ideally beautiful world — a beatific paradise — or, equally often, to the process of generating such a world in beautiful poetry (or, self-reflexively, to beauty's multifarious powers and its historical precedents). Thus Rossetti is manifestly self-conscious about form in her poems, about the literary origins of her subject matter, and about language, the processes and effects of signification in reconstituting reality. As we shall see, however, such reconstitutions often operate on more than an aesthetic and self-referential level. They can also serve to present a critique of social reality, literary tradition, or the ideologies inherent in both.
Thanks to Rebecca Crump's systematic presentation of Christina Rossetti's poetry and the processes of its creation, we now can better understand the nature and effects of her aesthetic self-consciousness. We can also test our critical assumptions about Rossetti, and, seeing how they fail, begin to construct new ones. As the reward for our efforts, we may well revise our traditional image of Rossetti as a repressed, unfulfilled, patient Victorian woman who turned in despair from human love to the devout, chaste, and chastening love of Christ. This role she may well have filled. But beyond it she persistently and as a comprehensive vocation played out the role of artist, and her art in every sense sustained her. Her art — like that of Keats and, from formalist and aestheticist perspectives, that of the troubadours, Dante, the Petrarchans, and the early Tennyson, all of whom she deliberately assimilated — reflects the ideal of self-sustaining redemptive beauty. Ultimately, the interaction of the traditions that enthralled her resulted in the Keatsian tempering of a Dantean mysticism in which human and divine love merge and become fulfilled in art. These Romantic literary mythologies, I would argue, incorporated but transcended Christina Rossetti's merely personal experiences of love and religion. That her purely aesthetic sensibilities superseded even these mythologies allowed her to become one of the most enduring Victorian poets. [22/23]
Last modified July 2000