e can readily trace the philosophical backgrounds of Christina Rossetti's Christian idealism and the process of renunciation that serves as the climax to many of her best love poems. These backgrounds, which interact complexly in her art, include the works of three of her favorite authors. Platonic, Augustinian, and Dantean ideals are yoked together in most of her love poems, though they prove only partially compatible. The indisputable influence of Plato and Augustine upon Rossetti is made clear by Bellas (Christina Rossetti, 17-19), Packer (Christina Rossetti, 94, 142-43, 195, 231, 259, 316); and W M. Rossetti ("Memoir," in Works, lxix-lxx).
In discussing the Monna Innominata (chapter 5), I attempt to demonstrate how Dantean literary ideals and ideals of Christian self-perfection operate. Exegesis of several other renunciatory love poems that implement more ostensibly Platonic or Augustinian ideals of love and transcendence suggest the extent to which Rossetti was able to work artistically in several literary-philosophical traditions at once. She apparently ignored the conflicts amon~ these traditions and conflated their sometimes disparate components in order to generate poems whose focus is always the same, ultimately, as that common to the works of Dante, Plato, and Augustine: the drama of a soul whose quest for an ideal of love, beauty, and spiritual perfection impels an impassioned struggle against the temptations to fulfillment offered by this vain world, which is finally renounced in favor of one that transcends it.
In depicting such dramas, however, Rossetti's concerns with her subject matter are ultimately comprehended within and superseded by aesthetic considerations. Ideals of beauty disclose the "Poet mind" behind the lovers of men and God in her poems. This poet is, finally, a lover of the Beautiful whose artistic activities are sanctioned: 1) by their emulation of God's own operations in His larger Creation; 2) by the poems' exemplary, moralizing function for readers susceptible to the same foibles, temptations, and passionate impulses as the central figures in the poems; and 3) we may well speculate, by their purgative and chastening effect upon Rossetti herself, who is volubly sensitive in her letters and poems to the necessity of resisting the temptations of the world and the passions they inspire. Thus, in many of her poems (including the Monna Innominata), art becomes a means of self-instruction, instruction of the reader in worldly vanities, and of revelation, through the poem's beauty and/or perfection, of God's immanence as the Power behind all created beauty. (W. D. Shaw approaches, but does not quite endorse, this conclusion about Christina Rossetti's aesthetics in "Projection and Empathy in Victorian Poetry," 324-29.)
Very early in Seek and Find Rossetti exposes her Christian Platonism, a learned and intuitive philosophy that implicitly reflects the extent to which her aesthetics agrees with and diverges from that of her brother, Swinburne, and Morris. Using as a text Gen. 1:31 ("God saw everything[96/97]that He had made, and behold, it was very good"), she not only reveals her concept of a comprehensive ideal of Beauty identical with God's being, but also, by extension, she offers a justification (proleptic of Hopkins's Christian aesthetics) for her own continuing artistic productions:
A work is less noble than its maker: he who makes a good thing is himself better than it: God excels the most of His excellent creatures. Matters of everyday occurrence illustrate our point: an artist may paint a lifelike picture, but he cannot endow it with life like his own; he may carve an admirable statue, but can never compound a breathing fellow man. Wise were those ancients who felt that all forms of beauty could be but partial expressions of beauty's very self: and who by clue of what they saw groped after Him they saw not. Beauty essential is the archetype of imparted beauty; Life essential, of imparted life; Goodness essential, of imparted goodness: but such objects, good, living, beautiful, as we now behold, are not that very Goodness, Life, Beauty, which (please God) we shall one day contemplate in beatific vision. (SF,14)
To understand fully the solipsism of much of Christina Rossetti's poetry — the repeated dwelling on her speakers' mental states — it is crucial to recognize that she perceived apocalypse and salvation as processes of psychic transformation. The goal was "beatific vision" (as in Blake and Dante), for which her special poems that explore psychological depths and mental potential can be seen as a discipline of preparation.
Rossetti placed Plato foremost among those "wise ancients" who "groped after" God as the comprehensive and transcendent ideal of Beauty. Plato had been the subject of her father's five-volume Amor Platonica, and Christina herself was such an enthusiastic Platonist that she "lugged down" to Hastings six volumes of his works on her holiday in 1865 (Packer, Christina Rossetti, 195). Indeed, along with the writings of Dante, Augustine, and Thomas à Kempis, Plato's works provided a cornerstone for the foundation of Christina Rossetti's entire structure of philosophical, theological, and aesthetic principles. The precepts of these writers were assimilated with typological, Tractarian, and Ruskinian modes of perception in the highly concrete images that dominate Rossetti's poetry of ideal passions and mental vision. The uniform process of this assimilation is perhaps best understood using a gloss from Walter Pater. In "The Genius of Plato" first published in the Contemporary Review (February 1892), Pater suggestively discussed the "problem" posed by the proliferation of sensory details used by Plato to articulate an ultimately idealistic philosophy (the article was republished in 1895 in Plato and Platonism). Pater's image [97/98] of Plato is strikingly similar to the image of Christina Rossetti that emerges from her poems:
Plato is one for whom the visible world. . . "really exists" because he is by nature and before all things, from first to last, unalterably a lover. In that, precisely, ties the secret of the susceptible and diligent eye, the so sensitive ear. The central interest of his own youth — of his profoundly impressible youth — as happens always with natures of real capacity, gives law and pattern to all that succeeds it .... The experience, the discipline, of love, had been that for Plato ... [involving] an exquisite culture of the senses....
Just there, then, is the secret of Plato's intimate concern with, his power over, the sensible world, the apprehensions of the sensuous faculty; he is a lover, a great lover, somewhat after the manner of Dante. For him, as for Dante, in the impassioned glow of his conceptions, the material and the spiritual are blent and fused together. While, in that fire and heat, what is spiritual attains the definite visibility of a crystal, what is material, on the other hand, win lose its earthiness and impurity. He who in the Symposium describes so vividly the pathway, the ladder, of love, its joyful ascent toward a more perfect beauty than we have ever yet actually seen, by way of a parallel to the gradual elevation of mind towards perfect knowledge, knew ... all the ways of lovers. [Plato and Platonism, 134-36]
Although Christina Rossetti may not have had the sexual experiences of love that Pater insists Plato enjoyed, she clearly "knew ... all the ways of lovers," as is evidenced by her poetry, and as we can infer from her proximity to her brother's affairs and even from her work with "fallen" women. Still, Rossetti's approach to the experience of love, from her earliest poems, required the discipline of renunciation, an agonized rather than "joyful" ascent toward realization of the ideal. (Qualified exceptions to this rule, such as "A Birthday," do appear, of course, but they are rare.) And it is, of course, in the chastening of Platonic process with Christian restraint that the Augustinian backgrounds to her work become relevant.
Lona Packer perceives a parallel between Goblin Market and Augustine's Confessions, a work she acknowledges as "one of Christina's early favorites" (142). In it, as in Goblin Market, "fruit ... appears as the symbolic inducement to sin.... The plucking of the forbidden fruit is dramatized and symbolized in the famous pear tree incident. As a young lad, Augustine with his comrades steals the ripe pears from the farmer's tree. For Augustine, this irresponsible act of a mischievous boy represents the first [98/99] free choice of the evil will" (142-43). In one commonplace view, then, Goblin Market can be looked upon as a poetic drama that, through the use of symbols bearing much weight of Christian tradition, instructs readers in the dangers of succumbing to temptation. Temptation in Rossetti's poem is figured through images extrapolated from Genesis along with renderings of the Fall myth transmitted through centuries of Christian literature, including the highly literary Confessions of Saint Augustine.
But beyond this simple and obvious parallel between Rossetti's poem and Augustine's autobiography, there exist a number of methodological similarities between the two, as well as similarities in the very justification for writing; and we can surmise that Augustine's Confessions provided one source that Rossetti, as a devout Christian, used to support her continued poetic activity. As early as her writing of Maude she recognized the dangers of the poetic vocation for a heroine with strongly religious inclinations. On the one hand, the pursuit of poetic beauty itself could serve as a distraction from higher moral and spiritual endeavors. On the other, success in writing posed a whole constellation of moral problems associated with vanity and ambition. A concern with these obstacles to moral purity and religious devotion appears repeatedly in her poetry. Even in her letters one hears the monitory and self-chastening voice of one tempted by the allure of fame and the attractions of self-reflexive rather than religiously devout works of beauty; see FL, 65, 87, 92, 164. However, just as she found in Dante a model of instruction and a pattern of activity that reconciled amatory, literary, and spiritual impulses, Rossetti discovered in Augustine exemplary subject matter for her poetry, as well as a more rigorously philosophical sanction for her vocation as a writer.
That sanction was actually twofold, justifying a life, as well as a poetry, of renunciation. On the most general literal level, Augustine's Confessions explains his reasons for renouncing a life of wealth and potential fame for a life devoted to the service of God. But underlying the descriptions of his life of sensual indulgence, worldly ambition, and vain pursuits up to the age of thirty-three is Augustine's explanation of how his career as a rhetorician, a retailer of words, became transformed into his vocation as a writer and minister, a transmitter of God's Word. Augustine's implicit epistemology and his belief in the importance of language in redeeming his fellow man is made clear, in summary, by Marcia Colish, one of the best recent commentators on Augustine:
For Augustine ... God creates the world and man through His Word, and He takes on humanity in the Word made flesh so that[99/100]human words may take on Divinity, thereby bringing man and the world back to God. In His redemptive plan, God has already solved for man the problem of His own ineffability. Once joined to God in Christ, human nature is restored in mind and body, and man's faculty of speech is empowered to carry on the work of Incarnation in expressing the Word to the world. For Augustine, redeemed speech becomes a mirror, through which men may know God in this life by faith. And Christian eloquence becomes, both literally and figuratively, a vessel of the Spirit, bearing the Word to mankind, incorporating men into the New Covenant of Christ, and preparing them through its mediation for the face-to-face knowledge of God in the beatific vision. [Mirror of Language, 35]
In practicing her art of "Christian eloquence" Christina Rossetti was, as we saw in chapter 2, playing an Augustinian role as mediator and "prophet."
The profound effect of Augustine's Confessions upon Rossetti's perception of her vocation appears (to the reader of her work) in other ways as well. (This influence is perceived, it seems, even by students of Augustine. In his classic commentary, Amor Dei: A Study of the Reliqion of St. Augustine, John Burnaby appropriately places Christina Rossetti's poem "Passing Away" as an epigraph to his chapter, "The Platonist's Christianity.") Augustine's ultimate dissatisfaction with pleasures of the flesh would certainly have buttressed her renunciatory mentality. And from his discussion of sexuality, Christina may well have learned a good deal about the "ways of lovers" that are repeatedly illustrated in her poems. As Colish observes, Augustine quickly realized that the "cult of his own sensations would not yield happiness, for it at once mingled its insatiable sweetness with suspicion, jealousy, and pain. Still, [he] did not abandon or restrain his sexual exploits. The pain of love, he discovered, has its own subjective attractions; as Augustine loved to love, he also loved to grieve" (29).This pattern of fallen behavior — the description of which requires Augustine to dwell upon the beautiful sensations of the world even after he has renounced them — can be perceived in the background of poems by Rossetti like "An Apple-Gathering," Goblin Market, and "Maude Clare." Similarly, in her novitiate novella, Maude, Rossetti took up the three moral issues that also preoccupied Augustine in the last stage of his conversion. These include intellectual pride, the desire for worldly fame, and sensuality (42-45). Maude's struggles with such impulses results in a psychological agony that can be resolved only with her death. Finally, a model and a theological justification for Rossetti's prose works of biblical exegesis appears in the Confessions. In its last three books Augustine — having renounced his career as a rhetorician in favor of a vocation devoted to "bearing the Word [100/101] to mankind" — undertakes an extensive exegesis of the first chapters of Genesis. Moreover, as Colish observes,
Scriptural exegesis is undoubtedly one of his favorite occupations, filling as it does the vast bulk of his collected sermons as well as a number of treatises and tracts. It is also one of the interests that he illustrates in the portion of the Confessions devoted to his clerical career. The last three books of the Confessions are largely given over to a literal and analogical analysis of the first few chapters of Genesis. This text was evidently one of Augustine's favorites, or at least one that he considered problematic, for he commented on it on three separate occasions.... In fact, Augustine's predilection for Genesis has enabled students of his hermeneutical technique to trace his gradual shift from a more to a less figurative type of interpretation. In the books of the Confessions devoted to Genesis, Augustine interprets it literally most of the time and is interested in showing that it may have more than one literal sense. He does not neglect to note the commemorative function of language and the role of the Interior Teacher in the study of the Bible.
Much the same kind of wrestling with the conflicts that arise between literal and figurative interpretations of biblical texts appears in the elaborate (and sometimes strained) exegesis of Revelation in Rossetti's The Face of the Deep. Revelation engaged her as obsessively as Genesis occupied Augustine, whose hermeneutics Christina Rossetti may well have perceived as a paradigm for her own, not only in The Face of the Deep, but also in her other largely exegetical tracts, Seek and Find and Called to Be Saints. The groundwork for all of these, as well as for her devotional and indeed much of her secular poetry, is Rossetti's irrepressible belief in the power of God's Word and the value of renouncing the nonspiritual satisfactions of this world in favor of imitating Christ by mediating God's Word through her own verbal art.
Last modified July 2000