Christina Rossetti was both a devout Christian and an admired poet who was also a woman. Kathleen Blake explores how these two aspects of her life, her devotion and her gender, influenced her poetry:
"Hope deferred" — Christina Rossetti repeats this phrase from Proverbs 13.12 over and over again in her poetry. A discouraging phrase, it emphasizes and extends the postponement already implied by hope. No other poet returns so often to words like lapse, slack, loiter, slow, tedious, dull, weary, monotonous, long. She plays on the relations between long and longing; long gets longer in a favourite word, lengthening. A poet with a "birthright sense of time", she usually counts time as slow suspense, suspense so slow that it loses almost the eagerness of suspense. . .
The poet is in slow suspense because she is a Christian. She draws upon her experience as a woman to embody this condition . . . Rossetti calls patience an exclusively New Testament word. . . Traditionally, also, patience is a feminine word. Christina Rossetti is traditional — she disassociated herself from the suffrage movement and thought women's rights and Christianity were at odds. At the same time she treats the maddening, martyring dullness of feminine patience. Her purpose is neither social analysis nor criticism. She simply shows postponement as it becomes, in her brother's phrase characterising her own life, "self-postponement". . .
According to Rossetti's unpublished notes on Genesis and Exodus, the penalty of death has been laid on men and of life on women, and, for her, continuance exacts as great a penalty as extinction. Thus in a number of poems she as passionately commiserates Christ for his endurance of life as of death, and she adds onto his six hours of agony the foregoing thirty-three years. A parallel may be drawn between Christ-like and feminine long-suffering.
And yet there is a difference between the patience of Christ and the patience of woman, because in Christ inheres his own eventual glory, whereas the woman must wait for grace to come to her. Of course, this is true for all Christian souls. But in a very significant statement,. . . Rossetti makes the woman in love the emblem of radical insufficiency and dependence upon external dispensation. . . Throughout her poetry and prose devotional writing Rossetti uses the figure of the Bride who awaits the Bridegroom, drawn from the Song of Solomon and from the parable of the wise foolish virgins in Matthew 25. 1-13. The Bride is the Church, the collective faithful, or individual soul, and the Bridegroom is Christ, the "Heavenly Lover."
[What other poets mix both the secular and the spiritual, and in what ways? What does it mean for women to wait?]
ReferencesBlake, Kathleen. Love and the Woman Question in Victorian Literature. Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1983.
Last modified 1991