DISCUSSING the influence of John Henry Newman's style during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, David DeLaura has explained that "the cult of Newman the supreme artist in prose . . . establishes [a] . . . crucial line of that still rather puzzling continuity descending from Newman and the Oxford Movement to aestheticism" ("Newman and the Victorian Cult of Style" 10). Christina Rossetti, a great admirer of the central figures of that movement, can be seen as a major Pre-Raphaelite poet who establishes yet another crucial line of this continuity, one that exposes the connection between ascesis and aestheticism, and that perhaps in part explains how the earnest repressiveness of the Victorians could ultimately explode into the sensual extravagance of the decadents.
In his essay, "Style," Walter Pater suggests — albeit in a limited context — the complex relations between ascesis and aestheticism as those relations are directly applicable to Christina Rossetti's poetics of "conciseness":
Self-restraint, a skillful economy of means, ascesis, that too has a beauty of its own; and for the reader supposed there will be an aesthetic satisfaction in that frugal closeness of style which makes the most of a word, in the exaction from every sentence of a precise relief, in the just spacing out of word to thought, in the logically filled space connected always with the delightful sense of difficulty overcome.
Different classes of persons, at different times, make, of course, very various demands upon literature. Still, scholars, I suppose, and not only scholars, but all disinterested lovers of books, will always look to it, as to all other fine art, for a refuge, a sort of cloistral refuge, from a certain vulgarity in the actual world. A perfect poem ... has for them something of the uses of a religious "retreat." [Appreciations, 17-18]
Extrapolating from Pater's observations, we can see how, in the case of Christina Rossetti's poetry, ascesis becomes significantly more than a matter of style, although it is certainly that, too. The concept, when applied to her life as well as her work, comprehends a pervasive system of values and renunciatory psychological and emotional compulsions. These mold her poetic vision. The chastening impulse of abnegation allowed Rossetti to create repeatedly in her poetry — as Dante did in his — a program for redirecting sensual desires and erotic passions to spiritual ends. In the process she wrote poems in which the striving for artistic perfection, the self-conscious and sometimes experimental craftsmanship, corresponds to the pursuit of spiritual perfection that the speakers in her poems often enact. Thus, ascetic impulses generate aestheticist effects. The renunciation of sensuality and passion, as well as the sensory beauties of nature that most often image these, becomes matter out of which another order of passion and beauty emerges. Rossetti's renunciatory art, however, often paradoxically enters the world of particular historical contexts that partly inspire it; it operates as a powerful cultural critique, as we have seen. It can serve to expose dangerously misguided social, moral, and spiritual value systems as well as the literary traditions in which they are grounded and replicated.
Ultimately for Rossetti, art was a kind of cloistral refuge from the demands and constraints that threatened to impinge upon her because of her special position as a devoutly religious female poet living in Victorian England. It was also her response to a world that appeared to her "fallen," corrupt in many important respects. Her writing allowed her to mediate between conflicting aspirations: to success as a poet; to success as a "prophet" (albeit in a minor key); to success in her often difficult roles as daughter, sister, and aunt; and to success in renouncing the vanities of this world in favor of the "hope deferred" for absolute fulfillment in the next. Her poetry enabled her simultaneously to live in the world, to comment on its lapsed values and behavior, to use it as a source of self-chastisement and thus of poetic inspiration, but also temporarily to transcend the world through the projected idealities of religious belief and through the ideals of beauty concretely realized in her art. As she suggested in her early letter to William Edmonston Aytoun, her vocation as a poet provided her with an unassailable position from which to pursue what all respectable Victorians would have perceived as "aims" that were "pure and directed to that which is true and right." And her art enabled her to do so in all aspects of her life. Largely through her writing, Rossetti attained a certain level of earthly fulfillment. Yet, toward the end she clearly found the rewards of her work inadequate.
In unpublished correspondence with her close friend, Caroline Gemmer, during her last decades, Rossetti discloses the pattern of expectation and disappointment that she retrospectively imposed upon her life. [The Rossetti-Gemmer correspondence is now in the Frederick Koch Collection, Pierpont Morgan Library.] She insists that a position in the world, no matter how marginal, has been [188/189] more suited to her needs and desires than any complete cloistral refuge. "So you think I once trembled on 'The Convent Threshold,'" she responds, apparently to Gemmer's inquiry. "Not seriously ever, tho' I went thro' a sort of romantic impression on the subject like many young people. No, I feel no drawing in that direction: really, of the two, I might perhaps have less unadaptedness in some ways to the hermit life. But I suppose the niche really suited to me is the humble family nook I occupy, nor am I hankering after a loftier." Rossetti's complacency was, however, temporary and limited entirely to the domestic sphere. Elsewhere, speaking in broader terms, she more fully reveals her equivocation between the worldly and the otherworldly:
"Surviving" is the lot of old age.... No, I don't exactly take the tantalization and delusion view of past years. They all have led me up to what now I am, and the whole series is leading me to my final self. I trust all I have vainly wished for here will be more than made up to me hereafter if — an all-momentous if! — I endure to the end. After all, life is short, and I should not immerse myself too deeply in its interests. Please note that I say, "I should not — I dare not pretend "I do not." [n.d., Frederick Koch Collection, Pierpont Morgan Library.]From her earliest sallies into the competitive literary marketplace, it is clear that Rossetti wanted professional success but wished also to retain complete artistic and ideological integrity. Doing so required much in the way of renunciation and self-sacrifice. Hence her highly self-conscious efforts at self-effacement in her poetry, prose works, letters, and social relations. Like the other Pre-Raphaelite poets, she was acutely sensitive to life's inevitable disappointments and losses, as well as to her own unfulfillment. These subjects often generated the elegiac subtexts of her poetry. In 1882, the year of Dante Gabriel's death, she wrote to Gemmer of the "struggle life is to many of us, and not least to many a 'love lorn' woman." And ten years later, more conclusively, she confessed: "do you wonder that I feel life a saddened period? Surely not. Look without or look within, feel without or feel within, and it is full of trial." At that time, despite her "literary success" with which she claimed to be "fully satisfied," she felt the hollowness of her accomplishment in light of all she had lost and, by implication, all she had deliberately renounced. Approaching her last decade, she acknowledged that "literary success cannot be Mother, Sister, dear friend to me." Sadly, the prospect of a heaven other than her "heaven of art" also dimmed in her final years. In what appears to be her [189/190] last extant letter, she wrote to Frederick Shields (5 September 1894) to say "good-bye for this life. " She was dying of cancer and wished to thank Shields for his "precious" friendship. She also begged him for "your prayers for the poor sinful woman who has dared to speak to others and is herself what God knows her to be" (Quoted in Sandars, Life of Christina Rossetti, 267. The original of this letter is now in the Spenser Collection, University of Kansas Library. See also Packer, Christina Rossetti, 403-4, and Bell, Christina Rossetti, 177).
Last modified 24 June 2007