decorated initial 'I' n a footnote to his essay, "The Religious Poetry of Christina Rossetti," Jerome McGann has observed that "it is a commonplace of Rossetti criticism that her poetry is the best expression we have of the ideas and attitudes of Tractarianism." He objects, however, that "this is a most misleading view (though not entirely wrong); one might rather turn to a work such as John Keble's The Christian Year for an epitome of Tractarian ideology. Rossetti's evangelical sympathies kept her Protestantism resolute" (RP, 143). In opposition to McGann's view, George Tennyson not only "seconds" Raymond Chapman's "long overdue case for seeing Christina Rossetti as directly and fully a product of the Oxford Movement" but he further insists that she is "the true inheritor of the Tractarian devotional mode in poetry" (VDP, 198). McGann's objection to this position (a position that Jerome Bump also supports) derives from his perception that the premillenarianist concept of Soul Sleep (or psychopannychism) is "the single most important enabling principle in Rossetti's religious poetry ... No other idea contributed so much to the concrete and specific character of her work" (RP, 135). (1) McGann can argue this case because he focuses his discussion of Rossetti's religious poetry on the pervasiveness in her work of a "special employment of the traditional topos of the dream vision. Several of Rossetti's poems set forth paradisal visions, and in each case these proceed from a condition in which the soul, laid asleep, as it were, in the body is permitted to glimpse the millenial world. In fact,[63/64]the logic of Rossetti's verse only allows her access to that world through the dream visions that are themselves only enabled by the concept (and the resultant poetic reality) of Soul Sleep" (RP, 35).

Tennyson's and McGann's positions are not mutually exclusive (as McGann's first parenthesis suggests). What makes them compatible, ironically, is what each critic emphasizes — from his own ideological vantageas Rossetti's very particular historical circumstances. It was precisely Rossetti's unique historical situation that allowed her to mediate between the characteristic Pre-Raphaelite emphasis on aestheticist idealities (especially as presented in dreams or waking visions) and a High Anglican ideology that absorbs not only a degree of evangelicalism, but also the influence of John Keble, Isaac Williams, and even John Henry Newman. Rossetti's aesthetic values were, like Ruskin's, Romantic, transcendental, and even Platonic, but they were also sacramental and, unlike Ruskin's, sacramental in radically conservative, often Tractarian ways.

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Last modified July 2000