f we include her juvenilia, Christina Rossetti wrote about five hundred specifically devotional poems, that is to say, about half of her total poetic production. But a large number of her nondevotional poems also have clearly religious subjects or subtexts. As McGann has noted, in reality nearly all of Rossetti's poems are, in the broadest sense, religious (RP,137). Many of these poems — especially those connected specifically with liturgical rituals or religious occasions, those depicting dialogues with Christ, and those based on biblical texts — would seem to have little in common with the typical topoi, stylistic techniques, or thematic concerns of Pre-Raphaelite poetry. But a great number do, in one way or another, embody recognizable Pre-Raphaelite characteristics alongside those that Rossetti borrowed from Tractarianism. Before exploring the Pre-Raphaelite qualities of Rossetti's devotional poems, it will be helpful to review and expand upon the already established ways in which these works reflect the influence of the Tractarian poets, especially John Keble and Isaac Williams. Beyond this, analysis of the aesthetic precepts behind Tractarian poetry will allow a fuller understanding of the elements even second generation Pre-Raphaelite poetry has in common with the productions of the Tractarians.
The resemblances between Rossetti's poem and Tractarian religious values have been convincingly enumerated and to some extent elaborated by Raymond Chapman, George B. Tennyson, and, in less detail, Georgina Battiscombe. Chapman observes Tractarian influence in the sacramental emphasis of those poems by Rossetti that literally or metaphorically employ motifs of baptism, communion, and marriage; and those that stress the value of virginity, the need for obedience, or the inevitability of guilt and the desirability of penitence. He remarks upon her concern with the self as individual, citing Newman's insistence that "God beholds [us] individually." Further, Chapman suggests a direct connection between Tractarianism and Rossetti's "attraction to the conventual life"; her veneration of St. Augustine; her interest in good works and social reform; her insistence upon self-sacrifice, self-denial, and self-abnegation; her uses of typological symbolism; and even her strong sense of heaven as a reality, a sense that is counterpointed by a Puseyite quest for "total union with Christ" (Faith and Revolt, 175-96, passim.). Tennyson similarly determines that Rossetti's uses of typology, nature imagery, and liturgical forms are characteristically Tractarian, as are her poems based upon the Church calendar, those inspired by acts of prayer, those that yearn. for oneness with God, and, finally, those that demon [68/69] strate the viability of poetry itself — as a mode of artistic discourse — in "seeking deity" (VDP, 200-203).
Such direct connections between Rossetti's art and Tractarianism become more convincing in light of the significant "hard" evidence that she was attracted to works by members of the Oxford Movement. Such evidence includes her elegiac sonnet on Newman (Works, 280); her possession of his Dream of Gerontius; and her hand-illustrated and underlined copy of The Christian Year by Keble. (8) Though, according to William Michael Rossetti, Christina "thought nothing of Keble as a poet" (Bell, 335), she clearly did admire the work of Isaac Williams, whom she quoted (on the value of auricular confession) to Dante Rossetti in a letter of 1881 (FL, 103), mentioned admiringly in her preface to Seek and Find, and remarked upon repeatedly in her letters. Also crucial in this connection is Rossetti's religious tutelage at the hands of the Revs. William Dodsworth and W J. E. Bennett, along with Canon Burrows, all of whom had close relations with Pusey and the Tractarian movement.
Yet Rossetti's art serves as a vehicle for mediating between the system of religious values taught her in part by these men, on the one hand, and the aesthetic and social values of Pre-Raphaelitism, on the other. For her, it seems, Tractarianism and Pre-Raphaelitism constituted separate but compatible, indeed deeply related, ideologies. Within each of her published volumes until 1893, for instance, she insisted upon juxtaposing her "Pre-Raphaelite" poems — often concerned with some version or situation of erotic love — with her "devotional" poetry. In 1893, perhaps in response to the special popularity of her specifically devotional poems as well as from a desire to order them all within a coherent structure, she collected her devotional pieces as Verses (See Kent, "Sequence and Meaning."). Her lifelong habit of placing the Pre-Raphaelite poems alongside the devotional works, however, tells us a good deal about her own (and indeed her publisher Macmillan's) awareness of a reading public that would see the two kinds of verse as mutually reinforcing rather than mutually exclusive. This audience she clearly differentiated — even by her choice of a publisher — from one that possessed what might be described as an exclusively devotionalist ideology. These latter readers would be responsive uniquely to her volumes of devotional and biblical commentary in prose and poetry published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK); they would be especially sympathetic to the exegetical as well as the sacramental and liturgical concerns, backgrounds, and procedures of such work.
However, the former audience, which bought her volumes of poetry in gradually increasing numbers from 1862 to 1904, would ostensibly have [69/70] perceived the ways in which her nondevotional poems served as corollary works to the devotional pieces. A number of elements are common to both groups of poems, and indeed to Pre-Raphaelite and Tractarian poetry in general. Some would be immediately apparent to all readers, while others require discussion to demonstrate the full scope and significance of their connection in the two "schools" of verse.
Readily admissible as a common characteristic of both is the highly self-conscious revival of sonnet sequences. Isaac Williams's The Altar (1847), for instance, is a series of over two hundred sonnets dealing comprehensively with "all aspects of ’the Great Christian Sacrifice,’ as the subtitle of the volume puts it, beginning with Gethsemane and ending with the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, in other words, the events from Holy Week to Whitsunday as reflected in the Mass" (VDP, 168). The plan of this volume reminds us not only of Wordsworth's ecclesiastical sonnets, but, in more strictly formal terms, of Dante Rossetti's House of Life, as well as Christina Rossetti's Monna Innominata and Later Life.
Similarly, the interest in medieval topoi and literary forms, along with attempts to create a medieval atmosphere in their works, is an undeniable feature common to the Pre-Raphaelites and Tractarian poets. (10) The culmination of the "medievatizing tendency that links the Oxford Movement to the Gothic Revival" is, as George B. Tennyson notes, Isaac Williams's The Cathedral, or the Catholic and Apostolic Church in England(1838)(VDP, 155). In this thick volume, Williams has elaborately "undertaken to do nothing less than write poems for all of the features of a vast Gothic cathedral, taking the reader through four main aspects of the structure, the exterior, the nave, the choir, and finally the pillars and windows.... Each section of Williams's church is so divided and subdivided in terms of its symbolic significances that he is able to extract an almost endless variety of religious topics from the intricacies of the plan" (VDP, 156-59). Williams's medievalist tendencies in this volume are reminiscent not only of the subject matter and literary backgrounds of Morris's Defence volume and Swinburne's numerous medievalist poems (including "Laus Veneris," Tristram of Lyonesse, and The Tale of Balen), but his book also suggests a pattern for the organizing architectural metaphor of the House of Life sonnets, many of which seem "medieval" in their invocation of Dantean and Petrarchan backgrounds, and in their use of allegory and typology; for a concise, helpful commentary on Rossetti's medievalism, see Stein, Ritual of Interpretation, 121-30. Beyond this, as we have seen, almost every early commentator on Pre-Raphaelite verse observed that its medievalism was a definitive feature.
An insistence upon other elements common in special ways to Pre-[70/71]Raphaelite as well as Tractarian poetry and aesthetics will seem more controversial. Such elements include: a detailed focus upon sacramentally resonant, often symbolic and typological nature images; a concern with palpably realized emotional suffering and with death, often producing poems that stress mutability, that expose a Romantic quest for permanence, or that become fundamentally elegiac in tone; and, finally, an interest in beauty itself as a poem's subject matter — arrived at diversely by means of a focus on ritual or (implicitly) on literary precursors and paradigms, or on the connections between art and faith generally defined,, Taking each of these common topoi separately and analyzing representative poems by Christina Rossetti for each, we can explore more fully than heretofore the connections between the aesthetic values of Pre-Raphaelitism and those of Tractarian poetry.
THE clearest and most comprehensive statement of Tractarian views of nature appears in Keble's Tract 89(1840). This tract is the counterpart, one might say, of several Pre-Raphaelite commentaries appearing in The Germ that insist upon the principle, in historical as well as landscape art, of absolute fidelity to the details of nature, the Pre-Raphaelite doctrine that most inclined Ruskin to the brotherhood's defense. Entitled "On the Mysticism Attributed to the Early Fathers of the Church," Keble's essay treats the central Tractarian concepts of Analogy and Reserve, but also, "taken as a whole, the Tract is the most thoroughgoing defense of... the symbolic mode of seeing the world that can be found after the Renaissance" (VDP, 53). This is especially true of the last third of the tract, "Mysticism as applied to the Works of Nature, and generally to the external World." (On the Tractarian concept of Analogy, see especially VDP, 52-56, 93-96, 146-51. On Reserve, see 41-47.). In the essay Keble defines the analogical interpretation of Nature as "the way of regarding external things, either as fraught with imaginative associations, or as parabolic lessons of conduct, or as symbolic language in which God speaks to us of a world out of sight: which three might, perhaps be not quite inaptly entitled, the Poetical, the Moral, and the Mystical phases or aspects of this visible world." (Tracts for the Times, 6:143). Newman clarifies this definition of Analogy, describing it as "the Sacramental system; that is, the doctrine that material phenomena are both the types and the instruments of real things unseen" (Apologia, 29).
Images of nature operate pervasively in such an analogical fashion in a great number of Pre-Raphaelite paintings by members of the original brotherhood. But it is less clear that they function this way in poems by the "atheistic" Rossetti, Morris, and Swinburne, though they clearly do in[71/72]the works of Christina Rossetti. Yet significant early poems by these men do quite deliberately present nature images that invite analogical and typological religious interpretation, although to some modem readers it may seem that the authors purposely undercut the possibility of such interpretation. (See, for instance, McGann, "Rossetti's Significant Details," in Sambrook, 230-42.)
Morris by no means stresses minutely detailed nature images in his early poems, but he does include potentially typological details that have ambiguously sacramental resonances: the image of Launcelot awakening at the close of "King Arthur's Tomb" with "hands bleeding from the stone." for instance; the cruciform position of Margaret at the conclusion of "The Wind"; and the pervasive flood imagery in "The Haystack in the Floods" Similarly, in The Earthly Paradise, passages open to analogical interpretation punctuate the narrative, as does the lyric that introduces the "November" section. Here the careless "dreamer" describes his midnight moonlit vision of an allegorized November:
The changeless seal of change it seemed to be,
Fair death of things that, living once, were fair;
Bright sign of loneliness for me,
Strange image of the dread eternity. [Morris, Earthly Paradise, 2:199.]
Also fraught with symbolic, potentially Christian images is Swinburne's 1857 poem, "Queen Yseult" in which Tristram's mother, Blancheflour, dies in childbirth. She is described as "Very beautiful and dead / In the lilies white and red. Tristram is subsequently discovered "Lain among the lilies bare." (book>Complete Works, 1: 13). Poems by Dante Rossetti, too, parade potentially sacramental images (even after his extensive antireligious revisions): "The Blessed Damozel with that figure's "three lilies in her hand" and seven stars in her hair; "The Woodspurge," whose central image is of the flower's "three cups in one"; and "The Honeysuckle," plucked where "the hedge on high is quick with thorn." Though "thinn'd" by the "thorns and wind," the prize flower stiff seems "sweet and fair" to the speaker.
Although such works do not go nearly so far in their analogical and typological uses of nature imagery as do Christina Rossetti's works or poems by Keble and Williams, they do clearly open a space for Christian interpretation to any reader who comes to the poems predisposed to such a mode of reading. On the surface they appear to pose, at least in part, as sacramental artifacts. Although she is discussing Pre-Raphaelite painting rather than verse, Carol Christ assesses with admirable precision the way nature images sometimes function in Pre-Raphaelite poetry as well:[72/73]
The detailed representation of even the smallest objects ... makes each one a possible focus of contemplation[,] thus [implying] a symbolic view of the world, in which each object can become instinct with meaning. By thus singling out each object, the Pre-Raphaelites build into their painting stylistically the impetus to a sacramental view of reality... Such portrayal reflects an assumption about the way man perceives. Faced with a world of natural objects instinct with symbolic meaning, man can understand that meaning by intensity of contemplation. [Finer Optic, 60-61]
Such intense contemplation of images in nature often results in the religious epiphanies or analogical interpretations of the world that characterize many of Christina Rossetti's devotional poems. "Consider the Lilies of the Field" (1853) and "Thou knowest ... thou oughtest therefore"(before 1893) are two of Rossetti's transparently analogical, but representative, devotional poems that thematically depend wholly on "reading" natural objects. Both are short works, but in striking ways they reflect Keble's beliefs about the proper employment of nature images in poetry.
Before looking at these poems, it is helpful to recall the contexts and origins of Keble's theories, which apply so well to Rossetti's devotional verse. Those theories depend very heavily on the work of Wordsworth and Coleridge, so much so that Keble dedicated his Lectures on Poetry to Wordsworth, the "true philosopher and inspired poet, who by the special gift and calling of Almighty God, whether he sang of man or of nature, failed not to lift up men's hearts to holy things." In Keble's view, Wordsworth was "a chief minister, not only of sweetest poetry, but also of high and sacred truth." (Lectures on Poetry, 1: 143). In these lectures, so thoroughly grounded in Wordsworthian aesthetics, Keble distinguishes two kinds of nature poets: those who through Analogy seek after God's veiled truths; and those who turn to nature primarily as a respite from care and worry. Christina Rossetti's work, including "Lilies of the Field" clearly places her in the first category, where "Nature is the paradigmatic example of God's speaking" to man "by Analogy, yet . . . with Reserve" (VDP, 67).
"Lilies of the Field" begins with its conclusion; that is, after the speaker has intensely contemplated nature and come to understand that "Flowers preach to us if we will hear," the bulk of the twenty-four-line poem is taken up with their lessons to us:[73/74]
The rose saith in the dewy morn:
I am most fair;
Yet all my loveliness is born
Upon a thorn.
The poppy saith amid the corn:
Let but my scarlet head appear
And I am held in scorn;
Yet juice of subtle virtue lies
Within my cup of curious dyes.
The lilies say: Behold how we
Preach without words of purity.
The violets whisper from the shade
Which their own leaves have made:
Men scent our fragrance on the air,
Yet take no heed
Of humble lessons we would read. [Poems, 1:76]
Like so many of Rossetti's poems, this one's first stanza seems to vaunt its own simplicity. In that sense the work insists upon its own Reserve, imitating God's Reserve in veiling Himself behind the symbolic surfaces of nature. Yet, also like the world of nature it describes, this devotional piece has what Rossetti elsewhere describes as "hidden meanings" in addition to its obvious lesson (Face,19). As is often the case with Rossetti's work, these meanings are communicated artfully, through deliberate punning and syntactical play. In line three above, for instance, "born" is a pun suggesting both generation and endurance in the face of life's suffering ("thorns"). The poppy's placement "amid the corn" (the grain of our daily bread) insists upon the need for relief from the quotidian, relief that comes in the form of a sacramental "cup of curious dyes" (an elaborate pun). The lilies next become emblematic not only of Christ's sacrifice, but, more importantly in this context, of the entire world of nature as well as the poem that represents its images and thus paradoxically preaches "without words." The lilies' "whispering" humility reinforces the doctrine of Reserve, as does the very dialogical structure of the poem, which translates striking visual images into speech, thereby effacing the flowers' potentially ostentatious beauty that would first attract attention to them. Similarly, the deliberately unpolished, simple form of the work (with its irregular rhymes and irregular iambic meter), along with the overt lesson of the poem, serve to devalue its potential as an aesthetic object. To realize[74/75]such potential requires intense contemplation on the part of the reader, corollary to the speaker's intense contemplation of nature. Such contemplation yields the poem's final lesson:
The merest grass
Along the roadside where we pass,
Lichen and moss and sturdy weed
Tell of His love who sends the dew,
The rain and sunshine too,
To nourish one small seed. [Poems, 1:76]
"Thou knowest ... thou oughtest therefore" is a later poem than "Lilies of the Field" and one of Rossetti's Songs for Stranqers and Pilgrim. Like "An Old World Thicket," it is an epiphanic poem, a Petrarchan sonnet in which revelation occurs with the volta. Up to the sestet the speaker is downcast by the passage overhead of a "dazzling cloud," made to feel "how low I was." just as the grief-stricken speaker in Dante Rossetti's "The Woodspurge" focuses his attention upon that flower with its "cup of three," the persona here focuses upon the "comforting" grass beneath her, which "bows" as the wind blows over it, bending "In homage at a message from the sky." What nature "preaches" to the highly self-conscious speaker is the paradox of strength in weakness and the need for patience:
As the grass did and prospered, so will I;
Tho' knowing little, doing what I know,
And strong in patient weakness till the end. [Poems, 2:320)
By the last line the speaker thus learns, through the application of Analogy, to imitate the self-effacement of the grass and to adopt Reserve in place of the pride that generates envy of the dazzling cloud at the sonnet's beginning. This poem demonstrates that policy, using simple, unembellished images and largely monosyllabic diction to express emotion quietly.
Thus, like "Lilies of the Field" "Thou knowest. . . thou oughtest therefore" simultaneously embodies a Pre-Raphaelite attention to the details of external nature and an attention to the fundamental precepts of Tractarian aesthetics, especially as they are expressed by Keble. Rossetti's sonnet even contains verbal echoes of Keble's poem for the fourth Sunday in Advent from The Christian Year, which also espouses patience and humility:[75/76]
But patience! there may come a time
When these dull ears shall scan aright
Strains that outring Earth's drowsy chime,
As Heaven outshines the taper's light.
These eyes, that dazzled now and weak,
At glancing motes in sunshine wink,
Shall see the King's full glory break,
Nor from the blissful vision shrink.
Rossetti's poetry, like Keble's, is in clear ways designed to illustrate the analogical mode of perception and, thus, like nature be a "handmaiden to divine truth ... [and] reinforce Christian truth . . . not originate her own" (VDP, 100-101). The great bulk of Rossetti's devotional poems that focus on images from nature operate in this fashion, as do many of her works not specifically designated as devotional; see, for instance, "To What Purpose Is This Waste" (Works, 305).
As characteristic of Pre-Raphaelitism as its careful, often analogical and typological use of details from nature to present some higher Truth is its fundamentally elagic quality. This is especially the case in poems by both Rossettis, Morris, and Swinburne, as critics have long emphasized. These poems concern themselves with emotional and psychological suffering, often caused by an obsession with mutability and death that results in a Romantic quest for permanence. The conclusion of such a quest is frequently envisioned either as absolute relief from suffering or as union with a dead or unattainable beloved in some ideal afterlife that suggests Keats's notion of an existence in which all the pleasures of this life are repeated "in a finer tone." Exemplary poems of this kind are well known and include Dante Rossetti's "The Blessed Damozel," "The Portrait," the "Willowwood" sonnets from The House of Life, and "The Stream's Secret"; Morris's "Sir Peter Harpdon's End," "Concerning Geffray Teste Noir," and even "The Blue Closet." In Swinburne's work, as in Christina Rossetti's, the pattern is pervasive, though his emphasis is most frequently upon relief from suffering through death; his ideal afterlife is depicted as a totally peaceful reintegration with the objects of nature in a mode of pantheistic revitalization. Among such poems are "The Triumph of Time," "The Garden of Proserpinel," "Ave Atque Vale," and "The Lake of Gaube." (Crucial passages in Tristram of Lyonesse also reflect this pattern.)
Almost ubiquitous in Christina Rossetti's devotional poems, too, is the expression of intense suffering and the depiction of beatitude in an ideal "flowering land of love" as a relief from life's suffering and a reward for[76/77]enduring it. Rossetti wrote more poems treating this constellation of concerns than works dealing with any other single religious topos. All her verse that discusses mutability, suffering, or death and presents paradisal visions has dear and specific relations to Tractarian aesthetic theory and Tractarian poetry, as well as to the broader traditions of Christian eschatology. In any final estimate, however, the dominance of dreams and visions as modes of perception, and the repeated insistence upon the depiction of Paradise as a fully aesthetic ideal (where union with the beloved and fulfillment will occur) distinguish these very numerous poems as largely Pre-Raphaelite and aestheticist in subject, tone, and handling, despite their connections with Tractarianism.
Tractarian theories of poetry, especially Keble's and Newman's, are fundamentally expressive. These theories, like those poets' analogical uses of nature imagery, can be traced to Wordsworth. For Newman, according to Alba Warren, poetry can provide "a solace for the mind broken by the sufferings and disappointments of actual life; and [it] becomes, moreover, the utterance of the inward emotion of a right moral feeling, seeking a purity and a truth which this world will not give" (English Poetic Theory, 10). But as Georg B. Tennyson has explained, "the inner emotion that is purged is not so much pity and terror as a yearning for something beyond" (VDP,38). That yearning is the theological analogue, we might say, of Wordsworth's "something evermore about to be." For Keble, too, "poetry has its source in a powerful emotion natural to all men, an emotion that rises up to seek expression and in expression finds relief. That emotion is religious: it is the desire to know God." Poetry thus becomes a catharsis for the artist or in Keble's own phrasing, a "divine medicine" providing release (VDP, 58-60). In short, it gives palpable form to a craving, a yearning, a sehnsucht described in most Pre-Raphaelite poetry as erotic in nature. The failure to satisfy what Christina Rossetti repeatedly designates as the "craving heart" results during life in intense suffering, and in the fear of an inability ever to attain fulfillment (redemption), and this fear generates self-loathing of a sort common to English religious poetry from Donne to Hopkins.
Rossetti's "craving" for fulfillment is often expressed in the conventional "spousal" imagery of religious verse, the speaker described as a bride and Christ as the Bridegroom. It is also expressed — reciprocally, from the perspective of each — in appetitive images: "I thirst for thee, full font and flood" ("I Know You Not," Works, 243); "The longing of my heart cries out to Thee, / The hungering thirsting longing of my heart" ("The gold of that land is good," Poems, 2:187); "Jesus, drink of me"[77/78]("Shut Out," Poems, 1:56); "Stretch forth thy hand to succour me" ("For a Mercy Received," Works, 235). This profound and unappeasable desire for Christ, the ideal lover, is the essential cause, but also at times the consequence, of the disdain Rossetti's poems predictably express for all forms of earthly success or gratification. Such soul-longing results in severe suffering (on occasion presented in images of Christ's agony, with which a poem's speaker identifies). This suffering can sometimes give way to visions of fulfillment in all-embracing love and a condition of beatitude in Paradise (these are by no means always dream visions, as McGann insists, however). Or, as is more often the case, the yearning appears spontaneously to generate, as in a fantasy, aesthetic images of Paradise,) presenting in highly concrete sensory detail attained ideals of beauty and love. The premises behind such movements in Rossetti's devotional poetry are clarified in her Gifts and Graces poem under the epigraph, "Subject to like Passions as we are." Discussing "whoso hath pangs of utterless desire," she explains:
Anguish is anguish, yet potential bliss,
Pangs of desire are birth-throes of delight;
Those citizens felt such who walk in white,
And meet, but no more sunder, with a kiss;
Who fathom still unfathomed mysteries,
And love, adore, rejoice, with all their might. [Poems, 2:250-51]
The "anguish" repeatedly articulated in the devotional poems, like Keats's "wakeful anguish of the soul," thus becomes a beneficent sensation because it leads to new levels of self-awareness and self-completion. (For the best available discussion of Keats's influence on Rossetti, see Fass, "Christina Rossetti and St. Agnes' Eve.") Yet for Rossetti, these are achieved not by immersing oneself in the experience of this world, as Keats requires of us in his "Ode on Melancholy," but by a solipsistic process of mental projection into the realm of the ideal. Suffering, however, is often the prerequisite for such a projection, as is the anguished culmination of suffering in death. At the end of sonnet 26 of Later Life, for instance, Death is invoked as a mysterious, "veiled" gateway, an avenue out of life, which is "dead for all its breath,"
... full of numbness and of balk,
Of haltingness and baffled short-coming,
Of promise unfulfilled. [Poems, 2:149]
In one of the Songs for Strangers and Pilgrims, we are instructed to "Bear up in anguish" for "ease will yet be sweet" (Works, 140). More specifically[78/79]in "I Look for the Lord," life's losses, frustrations, and disappointments are exposed as the cause of such anguish:
Our wealth has wasted all away,
Our pleasures have found wings;
. . . . . Our love is dead, or sleeps, or else
Is hidden from our eyes;
. . . . . Our house is left us desolate.... [Works, 151]
And the speaker implores the Lord to
Lead us where pleasures evermore
And wealth indeed are placed,
And home on an eternal shore,
And love that cannot waste. [Works, 151-52)
In Rossetti's devotional poems, as in most Pre-Raphaelite love poetry, speakers are usually martyrs who suffer "horrible pain ... struggle and doubt." Death is, however, the resting place in preparation for "joy in the end" a state of Soul Sleep in which the martyr will not "wake to her anguish again."
In Keble, too, we find a concern with suffering, but it is often generalized, even projected upon Nature, which, as a clear result of original sin, emits "groans" and experiences "travail pains" so that it seems to "mourn" ("Fourth Sunday in Advent"). Such descriptions sometimes lend Keble's verse, as George B. Tennyson observes, a sad and elegiac character common as well in Rossetti's frequent verses on life's travail (VDP, 99). One of Rossetti's fullest descriptions of the causes for suffering in life (analogous to stanza three of Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale") appears in a poem from Christ Our All in All, "Thy Friend and thy Father's Friend forget not":
Earth is half spent and rotting at the core,
Here hollow death's heads mock us with a grin,
Here heartiest laughter leaves us tired and sore.
Men heap up pleasures and enlarge desire,
Outlive desire, and famished evermore
Consume themselves within the undying fire. [Poems, 2:202-3)[79/80]
Such lines are presented predictably in Rossetti's poetry from the elegiac perspective of one who has abandoned the world, whose potential in it is dead, and who hopes only to "Make mine anguish efficacious" while waiting for death, watching for the Judgment, and hoping for eventual fulfillment in Paradise. Fears of inadequacy to achieve these goals, however, sometimes result in the deepest suffering of all — self-loathing, an experience of self that is antithetical to, but just as solipsistic as, the imaginative renderings of the paradisal ideal that appear far more often in her work.
The sense of unworthiness also appears in Keble's poetry, but only rarely and without the intensity of Rossetti's depiction; see, for instance, Keble's "Fourth Sunday in Advent." Her expressions of inadequacy more often resemble the painful captivity in particular perceptions and mental states characteristic of her brother's poetry or that of Hopkins in the dreadful sonnets. (Among Rossetti's relevant poems, see "The Portrait," "He and I," "Lost Days," "The Soul's Sphere" "Without Her," and "Severed Selves.") A number of Christina Rossetti's devotional poems explore aspects of the "tormented mind tormenting yet." In sonnet 4 of Later Life the speaker compares herself to the "Thief in Paradise," incapable of pursuing the ways of and to the Lord, sinful and inadequate to overcome those sufferings on life's path that are obstacles to salvation:
So tired am I, so weary of today,
So unrefreshed from foregone weariness,
So overburdened by foreseen distress,
So lagging and so stumbling on my way,
I scarce can rouse myself to watch or pray. [Poems, 2:139-40)
The especially strategic use of anaphora, internal rhymes, and sibilants in these lines succeeds so well that the reader is virtually mesmerized, verbally compelled to identify with the speaker's condition. Indeed Rossetti's poems of despair and self-torment are some of the most effective devotional works she wrote.
The speaker in "The Thread of Life" laments her total isolation from God and mankind, even her "inner solitude," and asks, "Who from thy self-chain shall set thee free"; thus "am I mine own prison." The second sonnet of the triad concludes with a version of chiasmic play that renders the absolute quality of her captivity in self. "I am not what I have nor what I do; / But what I was I am, I am even I" (Poems, 2:122-23). Equally powerful but more graphic are the self-descriptions in "For thine Own Sake, O My God":[80/81]
Wearied I loathe myself, I loathe my sinning,
My stains, my festering sores, my misery:
Thou the Beginning ... didst foresee
Me miserable, me sinful, ruined me. [Poems, 2:189)
Similarly, in "An exceeding bitter cry" (from Christ Our All in All), the speaker is desolated by self "contempt and pangs and haunting fears" of inadequacy (Works, 218). Elsewhere, she exclaims, "I to myself am bitterness" or laments that "Steeped in this rotten world I fear to rot" (Poems, 2:199). And in "Who Shall Deliver Me?" she prays for strength "to bear myself; / That heaviest weight of all to bear." Having locked "All others . . . outside myself," she asks rhetorically, "who shall wall / Self from myself, most loathed of all?" (Poems, 1:226).
The alternative to such despair and self-deprecation is the "hope deferred" of salvation and union with Christ the beloved Bridegroom in an idealized afterlife. The frequency of this topic in Rossetti's devotional works would seem to minimize the significance of the antithetical strain of solipsism in her poetry. This latter strain, as we have seen, focuses not only on self-imprisonment and self-loathing, but also on the inevitability of loss, betrayal, disappointment, physical pain ("festering sores"), and psychological anguish. And it pervades her love poetry as thoroughly as her devotional verse. In response to such suffering, her works — prose commentaries as well as poetry — espouse the necessity of resignation and patient endurance.
The wakeful anguish reinforced by such a negative, sometimes morbid, perspective on life was clearly a source of creative inspiration for Rossetti, as it was for her brother Dante Gabriel and for Swinburne; it provided a subject matter upon which infinite variations could be played. Moreover, it satisfied — in a way that no other worldview could — the spiritual demands and obligations of the religious ideology that she had adhered to from her earliest years. It also fulfilled her special psychological and emotional needs. At the same time it provided the perfect entryway into the structure of feminine values and virtues that most middle-class Victorian women were prevailed upon to inhabit. (For a full and useful elucidation of those values, see Gorham, Victorian Girl, and Poovey, Proper Lady and the Woman Writer.) Clearly these could be successfully manipulated to take full advantage of both Pre-Raphaelite and Tractarian patterns of artistic expression.
Such assertions of the interpenetration of artistry and ideology find clear support in one of Rossetti's unpublished letters. On 3 January 1888, she wrote to Caroline Gemmer (pseudonymn, Gerda Fay), an intimate[81/82]friend for nearly twenty-five years, appropriately wishing her a "happy new year." Despite the ostensibly obligatory quality of this salutation, Rossetti immediately takes up the issue of happiness in earnest. At fifty-eight she could without equivocation sum up her position on this issue so crucial to the central topoi of her poetry and her prose works. "Happiness," she explains,
is in our power even when continual pleasure is out of the question. In will at least. I am that contented "droner" who accounts her assigned groove the best. Here [in this groove] I can, if I choose, please God: and what more could I do elsewhere? Besides in justice I am bound to avow that even my (small) limited amount of self-knowledge certifies me that some of my actual trials are exquisitely adapted to my weak points. Do you know I suspect I find a grinding groove less galling than you do? I feel at home among anxienes and depression; and as the bulk of even my human heart is now in the other world, double shame would it be to me if the remainder had no tendency at all to betake itself thither. [Christina Rossetti to Caroline Gemmer, 3 Jan. 1888, Frederick Koch Collection, Pierpont Morgan Library.]
Not only Rossetti's heart, but also her mind and her pen venture, as it were prematurely, to the "other world" of total fulfillment in love of Christ, the community of saints, and the purely aesthetic beauties of a paradisal ideal. Gazing upon Beata Beatrix, her brother's famous portrait of Elizabeth Siddal completed after Siddal's death, the viewer steeped in Christina Rossetti's devotional poetry is likely to see in it an attitude far more characteristic of speakers in Rossetti's poems than of her sister-in-law. In dozens of poems Rossetti repeatedly depicts an aesthetic heaven whose atmosphere is powerfully reminiscent of the idealities, sought after or fully presented in much Pre-Raphaelite painting and poetry, including that of her brother. Among such works I would include the great bulk of paintings by Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and Waterhouse, as well as poems like "The Blessed Damozel," "The Portrait," and the "Willowwood" sonnets already cited. Also see Morris's Earthly Paradise and Swinburne's "Rococo," "Before a Mirror," "Hermaphroditus," "A Nympholept," "The Lake of Gaube," and "The Queen's Pleasance" from Tristram of Lyonesse.
Rossetti's devotional poetry radically extends a fundamental precept of Keble's poetics, first articulated in his eighty-page review essay on Lockhart's Life of Scott (1838). Speaking of what he later defined as one form of Reserve, God's deliberate "hiddenness" from mankind, Keble insisted that art, including poetry, is mimetic, but "the thing to be imitated or expressed is some subject of desire or regret, or some other imaginative feeling, the direct indulgence of which is impeded" (Keble, Occasional Papers, 16). In her numerous poems describing Paradise, Rossetti takes what began for Keble as a qualified Aristotelian doctrine in decidedly Platonic — and Pre-Raphaelite-directions.[82/83]
The emphasis upon dreams and dream visions as (often escapist) mental constructs in Pre-Raphaelite poetry has long been accepted as one of its most salient features; for a summary of this view of Pre-Raphaelitism, see Lourie, "Embodiment of Dreams." And as Margaret Lourie has recently pointed out, "the problem for modem critics ... is not to dissociate dreams from the Pre-Raphaelites, who rather fancied themselves as residents of dreamland anyway, but to determine what it has typically meant for critics to call these poets dreamers" (194). Christina Rossetti would certainly never have perceived or deliberately represented herself as a resident of dreamland, although a number of her poetic personae are inhabitants. She strongly felt the painfully concrete realities of the quotidian world and sensed with equal power the reality of the nonmaterial transcendent world upon which her religious belief and the "historical" events and texts that supported such belief were based. Readers who do not accept at face value Rossetti's own religious self-representations, however, can see her paradisal poems in a way that either of her brothers, for instance, might have, or as Jerome McGann describes them: they are "poetic idealizations" or fantasies — like those that so often dominate the works of the other Pre-Raphaelite poets. Such idealizations answer Rossetti's "emotional needs," embodying, "images which at once sustain her deepest and most frustrate desires, and which also help to reveal the circumstances which are responsible for experiences of misery and betrayal" (RP,139).
When they are not invoking or describing the power of Christ's love, Rossetti's paradisal poems discuss fulfillment for the longing, craving heart; or they emblematically depict the "new Jerusalem" in highly aesthetic images. Often a single poem will do both, sometimes in such a way that the poem's literary self-consciousness is projected as corollary to the process of formulating religious idealizations; the poem itself fulfills the longing that stimulated its production. In these poems that envision "the times of restitution" the speaker dependably expects that "My God shall fill my longings to the brim" (Works,156). His "Sweet love" is "the one sufficiency / For all the longings that can be" (Works,205). The passion "for one to stir my deep" to "Probe my quick core and sound my depth" will be fully consummated: "I full of Christ and Christ of me" (Works, 193). The "Love which fills desire / And can our love requite" suffices and makes "my garden teem with spices" (Poems, 1:90).
Rossetti often enhances her depictions of the condition of fulfillment, or even beatitude, by generating idealized descriptions of the environs in which it occurs. These are equally often juxtaposed with images of this world's inadequacies, which the "ecstasy" of Paradise supplants. In Para[83/84]dise there "cometh not the wind nor rain / Nor sun nor snow," and there "The Trees of Knowledge and of Life" display "leaves and fruit / Fed from an undecaying root" (Works,149). There, too, the angels, all like Dante Rossetti's transfigured Damozel, "Now yearning through" their perfect rest "gaze / Earthwards upon their best-beloved / In all earth's ways." But, by contrast with the inhabitants of Dante Rossetti's heaven, those in his sister's long for their mates without "pain, as used to be their lot" (Works,149). Such contrasts between this world, even in its prelapsarian perfection, and the next also structure an untitled lyric from Some Feasts and Fasts:
Four rivers watered Eden in her bliss,
But Paradise hath One which perfect is
Eden had gold, but Paradise hath gold
Like unto glass of splendours manifold
Tongue hath not told. [Poems, 2:220)
This poet's tongue, however, insistently tells what she envisions "beyond all death and ills": "Refreshing green for heart and eyes, / The golden streets and gateways pearled" (Poems, 2:271). Indeed, much verse in The New Jerusalem and Its Citizens is devoted to description of the heavenly beauties in store for all brides of Christ. As McGann suggests, these works present "imaginative transpositions" of natural objects, usually including precious commodities, gems, and metals, which are themselves commonly subject to transposition into artifacts. In "The Holy City, New Jerusalem," Paradise is not only a Keatsian or Spenserian "garden of delight" where "Leaf, flower, and fruit make fair her trees," but it is, more prepossessingly, a city "built of gold, / Of crystal, pearl," and gem," where "song nor gem / Nor fruit nor waters cease" (Poems, 2:280). This "glimmeringly radiant" land of the heart's desire proffers hedonistic delights even more powerfully suggestive of decadence. This "land we see not makes mirth and revel," is full of "soft speech and soft replying" and blossoms "sweet beyond ... knowing." Here "all balm is garnered to ease you," and "all beauty is spread out to please you" (Poems, 2:268).
The irony of all these poems is, of course, that they speak the "unutterable," reveal knowledge of the unknowable, envision the unseen. In short, they realize the unattainable. Despite Rossetti's ubiquitous emphasis upon[84/85]"hope deferred" her poems often palpably create the world they desire. The vividness of her visions undercuts the urgency of her speakers' frequently expressed desire
. . . to see these things again,
But not as once in dreams by night;
To see them with my very sight,
And touch and handle and attain.
("Paradise," Poems, 1:222]
She erects a heaven of art that is the poetic reflex of her Christian ideology, just as her poetic persona can be the reflex — the "lovely mirror, sister, Bride" — of Christ ("Advent Sunday," Poems, 1:212). This aestheticist quality of her poetry becomes all the more striking in light of her admonition against such visionary speculation. In The Face of the Deep she insists that "God's perfect Will and not our own desire or imagination is the standard of beatitude" (Face,127).
Yet the inseparability of art from the attainment of ideal mental or visionary states is another feature common to both Pre-Raphaelite poetry and Tractarianism. It allows varied levels of intertextuality, that is, of a deliberate appropriation of significant literary precursors, on the part of each school of poetry. Just as, in Pre-Raphaelite poems such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "Love's Last Gift" or "The Burden of Nineveh," art becomes self-sustaining and self-reflexive — the only palpable verification of lived experience as well as emotional and psychological aspiration beyond it — so for the Tractarians and for Christina Rossetti the expression of religious emotions and the attainment of religious ideals is by definition an artistic enterprise. (32) George B. Tennyson describes as "a standard Tractarian position" Newman's insistence that religion is in fact the "truest" poetry (VDP,40). "Revealed Religion" Newman explains, "should be especially poetical — and it is so in fact.... It presents us with those ideal forms of excellence in which a poetical mind delights, and with which all grace and harmony are associated. It brings us into a new world (Newman, Works, 1:23). For Newman and Isaac Williams especially, but also for the Tractarians generally, George B. Tennyson properly emphasizes "the joint and mutually reinforcing activity of religion and art. For every explicit Tractarian assertion of the primacy of religion, there is a counterbalancing, implicit approach to religion through art. Aesthetic concepts so tinge the religious one as to make it a nice question which is primary. What is clear is that the one inevitably calls forth the other" (VDP,23). The ultimate logical ex[85/86]tension of the Tractarian insistence upon the interpenetration of art and religion is Newman's and Williams's special concept of the Church itself as a work of art (VDP, 48).
This equation, as central to Tractarian aesthetics as is the identification of erotic love and art for the Pre-Raphaelites, helps to explain what otherwise might seem a heterogeneous juxtaposition of moral values, aestheticist images, and self-conscious literary allusion, appropriation, or imitation in Christina Rossetti's devotional poems. As we have seen, Rossetti's numerous lyrics envisioning Paradise as a "garden of delight" often dwell on the sensory beauties to be enjoyed there:
Jerusalem is built of gold,
Of crystal, pearl, and gem:
Oh fair thy lustres manifold,
Thou fair Jerusalem!
Thy citizens who walk in white
Have nought to do with day or night,
And drink the river of delight.
["New Jerusalem and Its Citizens," Poems, 2:280]
The "golden streets" of Paradise, its "glassy pools," harps, and "crowns of plenteous stars" along with its inner and outer rings of harmoniously singing saints, are all deployed to describe what is implicitly God's vast artistic design. That design is represented microcosmically in the design of the work of art that describes these sublime aesthetic phenomena as if from the eyepiece of a telescope. At the same time, however, these objects of beauty are coterminous with the moral virtues that they emblematize: Paradise has "All gems ... for glad variety, / And pearls for pureness radiant glimmeringly, / And gold for grandeur where all good is grand" (Poems, 2:281).
Appropriately, Rossetti's heaven of art often appears to find its objective correlative in literary paradigms that are self-consciously echoed or imitated. Much has been written recently, for instance, on Rossetti's debts to Herbert, both technical and thematic. (See especially D'Amico, "Reading and Rereading"; and Kent, "'By thought word and deed.'") But as we have seen in discussing "An Old World Thicket," Rossetti sometimes also offers revisionist reworkings of motifs from Romantic poetry — especially that of Wordsworth and Keats — in her devotional works. Nor is it surprising that some of her favorite biblical passages emerge from the ornate texts of Solomon's Song of Songs, which "loves and longs":[86/87]
Doves it hath with music made of moans,
Queens in throngs and damsels in throngs,
High tones and mysterious undertones,
That Song of Songs. ("In the day of his Espousals.,"
The self-conscious literariness of Rossetti's enterprise in her devotional as well as her "secular" poetry is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by her inclusion, among the devotional poems, of virtual parodies of works by her brother and Swinburne. On 13 December 1861 she composed "Within the Veil," whose titular pun is understood as soon as we realize that the poem's subjects are two brides of Christ, one present and one future. Both are genuinely "blessed" darnozels whose concerns are not at all with the loves of this world but only with the beauty attainable in the next:
She holds a lily in her hand,
Where long ranks of Angels stand:
A silver lily for her wand.
All her hair falls sweeping down,
Her hair that is a golden brown,
A crown beneath her golden crown.
Blooms a rose-bush at her knee,
Good to smell and good to see:
It bears a rose for her, for me.
Her rose a blossom richly grown,
My rose a bud not fully blown
But sure one day to be my own. [Works,234]
These simple rhyming tercets mock the greater, though subtle, formal complexities of her brother's "The Blessed Damozel," which already exists on the borderline of parody, with its thematic and imagistic dialogues with Milton, Dante, and Keats, along with its playfully elegiac dialogue between lovers in this world and the next. Similarly, in "Whitsun Monday" Christina Rossetti ironically manipulates Swinburne's typical anapests, his characteristic image patterns (river/sea, tree/fruit, silence/sound), and even the commonplaces of his poetic diction, but she does so for orthodox purposes: that is, to subvert his ostentatious iconoclasm. [See, for instance, Swinburne's "The Triumph of Time," "The Garden of Proserpine," and "Hertha."] [87/88]
Although, as George Tennyson has demonstrated, the Tractarian poets evidence a high level of literary self-consciousness, the Pre-Raphaelite poets operate at a significantly higher level of artistic self-awareness, as even their earliest critics realized. Christina Rossetti's artistic origins and literary debts are diverse and often plain to see in her works. As we know, they range from Herbert to Maturin to Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge, Tennyson, the Tractarians, and her fellow Pre-Raphaelites. Yet for her, as for her brother Dante Gabriel, the literary precursor who had perhaps the most powerful influence upon the unique nexus of artistry and religious belief in her work was the great Italian whose poetry was her father's obsession until the day he died. As Rossetti herself admitted, for her the "Dantesque vortex" was inescapable. But the Dantean influence was, as we shall see, also wholly compatible with the Tractarian and other literary strains that molded her art.
Last modified July 2000