Not all of Rossetti's poems attain, or even look for, a definite source of spiritual meaning. Pater's interpretation of Rossetti as fusing and blending matter and spirit seems unable to account for those prominent moments when in spite of all efforts no glimpse of meaning or spirituality can be found in a material experience, as in "The Woodspurge" or "The Staff and the Scrip." Are these moments of failure? David Riede, for example, calls "The Woodspurge" "one kind of poetry that can result from a loss of faith in the visionary. It is a poetry of nonstatement" (57-58). One might mitigate this label by arguing that something can be spiritual without having a meaning that can be stated, but still this concession to "loss of faith in the visionary" seems to drain the energy from Pater's argument.
Consider, for instance, "The Staff and The Scrip," in which Queen Blanchelys strives to find meaning in the tokens left behind by the Pilgrim, but is ultimately unable to. The Pilgrim, in his unwavering faith in God, seems a sort of unattainable possibility for Rossetti. He acts in complete assurance of divine grace, claiming, "God's strength shall be my trust, / fall it to good or grame, / 'Tis in His name," (53-55) yet to outside observers such as the Queen and the first visitor the Pilgrim encounters, this assurance rests upon the Pilgrim's own will rather than real spiritual knowledge, as the queen asks, "Can such vows be, Sir — to God's ear, / Not to God's will?" (61-62). At the Pilgrim's departure he demonstrates his belief that spiritual content resides in symbolic meaning rather than in matter by kissing his sword, the Queen's written name, and her image "instead of her," (80). Whether Rossetti thinks that the Pilgrim is misguided in esteeming symbolic, spiritual content over material realities is unclear, but he does seem to empathize more with the Queen and her servants, who are unable to find meaning in this way. When the Queen's maidens hear sounds of the returning soldiers, they lack the confidence in such symbols to accurately provide meaning, instead claiming that, "'Tis our sight is dazed / that we see flame i' the air." (126-7) and that "'Tis our sight is blurr'd," (136). Most strikingly, the Queen realizes that cannot access any meaning that the Pilgrim's tokens may have been meant to hold:
And once she woke with a clear mind
That letters writ to calm
Her soul lay in the scrip; to find
Only a torpid balm
And a dust of palm. [186-190]
While these symbols may have held meaning for the Pilgrim, and perhaps were even meant to convey some sort of spiritual message to the Queen, they ultimately are "only" physical objects that leave her unsatisfied. In the wake of this failure, the closing of the poem on a scene of Heaven seems rather dull and arbitrary. Rossetti does not deny the spirituality of matter that the Pilgrim finds so compelling, but clearly he is more interested in the limitations of this view, its inability to provide spiritual meaning strong enough to overcome the immediacy of the material world. In other words, whereas Christina Rossetti's speakers are able to bear life because they have an assurance, albeit an assurance without content, of a future Paradise, for Queen Blanchelys there is no such spiritual assurance or solace, and the pain of living is undercompensated by the substitute sources of spirit that Dante Rossetti conceives of.
The Rossettis and the Metaphysics of Spiritual Experience
- Christina Rossetti and the Metaphysics of Spiritual Experience
- D. G. Rossetti's celebration of the unity of matter and spirit
- D. G. Rossetti's Typological Approach
Riede, David H. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Limits of Victorian Vision. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983.
Last modified 12 March 2007