Typology is an ancient exegetical technique of reading non-literal and prefigurative meaning into Biblical texts that were simultaneously treated as being literally and historically true. A classic example is that of the story of Jonah, whose imprisonment within the belly of a whale was said to prefigure the death and resurrection of Christ. Typological symbolism thus flourished in religious poetry through the Renaissance; but by the Victorian period, when such "historical truths" as the divine creation of Adam were being called into question, typology must have seemed an antiquated poetic technique indeed.
It is at first difficult to explain the appeal of medieval typology to such apparently secular Victorian writers as Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82), but the evidence of its continued influence is clearly there. Certainly it is the case that the Victorians in general, both religious and secular, were well familiar with Biblical knowledge; and thus, that the images and rhetoric of the Bible presented an effective means of communication even for thinkers such as Carlyle and Ruskin who came to reject outright the claims of orthodox Christianity. I'm interested, however, in the degree to which the appeal of typological techniques to writers such as Rossetti exceeded these ends; and also in the degree to which Rossetti's use of typology worked against that of his pious forbears. Consider, for example, his sonnet "The Passover in the Holy Family":
Here meet together the prefiguring day
And day prefigured. 'Eating, thou shalt stand,
Feet shod, loins girt, thy road-staff in thine hand,
With blood-stained door and lintel,' — did God say By Moses' mouth in ages passed away.
And now, where this poor household doth comprise
At Paschal-Feast two kindred families, —
Lo! the slain lamb confronts the Lamb to slay.
The pyre is piled. What agony's crown attained,
What shadow of death the Boy's fair brow subdues
Who holds that blood wherewith the porch is stained
By Zachary the priest? John binds the shoes
He deemed himself not worthy to unloose;
And Mary culls the bitter herbs ordained.
Here we see how, in accordance with traditional typological readings, the lamb sacrificed at Passover to ward off the death of the first-born is seen as anticipating the sacrifice of Christ as Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Rossetti was doubtlessly interested on an aesthetic level in the way in which, through typological exegesis, the ordinary events of everyday life may be understood as bearing a significance beyond our understanding, even of central importance to the history of man. Thus, for example, the gathering of "bitter herbs" at the end of the sonnet functions both domestically, as a description of the real life of an ordinary mother, and in anticipation of the sufferings of Mary, mother of God. The questions posed in the second stanza, however, are psychological in their concern, and perhaps help to differentiate Rossetti's ends from those of earlier religious poets, who sought to induce in the reader a state of contemplation.
1 Compare Rossetti's sonnet with his watercolor of the same name. How does this act of doubling complicate or simplify our understanding of his use of typology?
2 Beyond the use of the words "prefiguring" and "prefigured" in the opening lines of this sonnet, what other techniques may be used in order to alert the reader to levels of significance beyond the literal?
3 Rossetti's translations of Dante and other early Italian poets are clear evidence of his familiarity with their poetic techniques. How does Rossetti's use of Biblical typology differ from that of earlier Christian poets?
Last modified 26 September 2007