William Holman hunt was not the only member of the Pre-Raphaelite circle to employ typological symbolism. Although such iconography ultimately proved far more important to him than to any of his associates, he was not alone in using it, nor was he the first member of the Brotherhood to do so. Precedence would seem to belong to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who made typological allusions in "Ave" and other poems written in 1847. If Rossetti's editors are correct in assigning one of his letters to September 1848, then James Collinson's poem "The Child Jesus" was completed by that date and hence the first Pre-Raphaelite work to employ elaborate prefigurative symbolism (Letters, I, 43). Collinson's typological poem, which we shall examine in detail, was not published until 1850, when it appeared in The Germ, and this year also marks typological poems and pictures by Rossetti, Hunt, Millais, and Collins. Grieve's assertion that the Pre-Raphaelites came under the influence of the High Church party in Oxford at about this time is thus supported by the works of Collins, Hunt, and Millais, though the earlier date of Collinson's poem suggests that he, like Rossetti, drew independently upon High Church doctrine.
Collinson's "The Child Jesus. A Record Typical of the Five Sorrowful Mysteries" is the single most elaborate use of typological symbolism by those associated with the Brotherhood during its early years. Originally, the poem must have had three sections, for Rossetti wrote to his mother that Collinson "has augmented it with two new incidents, by which addition it is now made emblematical of the "five sorrowful mysteries" of the Atonement" (44). As the poem appeared in print, each of its five sections narrates an imagined event from Christ's childhood which prefigures the Passion and Crucifixion. Like George Herbert, Collinson uses the title of each part of his poem to introduce his basic conceit. Thus, the opening section, "The Agony in the Garden," uses Wordsworthian lines to relate how the child Jesus suffered when a hawk killed a pet dove's only fledgling.
Jesus heard the mother's anguished cry,
Weak like the distant sob of some lost child,
Who in his terror runs from path to path,
Doubtful alike of all; so did the dove,
As though death-stricken, beat about the air . . .
And the child Jesus wept,
And, sitting by her, covered up his face:
Until a cloud, alone between the earth
And sun, passed with its shadow over him.
Then Jesus for a moment looked above;
And a few drops of rain fell on his brow,
Sad, as with broken hints of a lost dream,
Or dim foreboding of some future ill.
[The Germ. Thoughts Towards Nature in Poetry, Literature and Art (New York, 1965), 51. All quotations from Collinson's poem are taken from this edition, which is a photographic reproduction of William Michael Rossetti's reprint of the original.]
Finally, a young girl brings him a
handful of choice flowers . . .
As little children do at Easter-time
To have all seemly when their Lord shall rise,
and this comfort brings prompt thanks from Christ. But his realization of the pain and sorrow of all living things did not leave him "Till night brought sleep, and sleep closed o"er his woe."
Like many preachers of both High and Low Church leanings, Collinson found types and figures within the life of Christ himself, and in this respect seems to have been at least partial inspiration for both Millais and Hunt. Like his friends, he felt free to imagine events which might have served as prefigurations of Christ's later career, for the scriptures nowhere relate the occurrences which appear in "The Child Jesus." Collinson was here working in a manner identical to that of Millais in Christ in the House of His Parents, and, like that picture, Collinson's poem. employs additional symbolic references to reinforce the primary typological meanings. Just as Millais used the carpenter's instruments to prefigure the instruments of Christ's torture and the bowl of water to prefigure his baptism, so Collinson adds details to emphasize his main point. For instance, he likens the flowers and vines on Christ's humble dwelling to
the wreathed shadows and deep glows
Which the sun spreads from some old oriel
Upon the marble altar and the gold
Of God's own Tabernacle, where he dwells
Although these lines perhaps make distant reference to Leviticus, the chief allusion, as in the little children at Easter, is to the period of the Christian dispensation, and "God's own Tabernacle" is a High Church allusion to the Reserved Sacrament. Properly speaking, such references are not anachronistic, for, like similar typological imagery in Milton's nativity ode, these lines conflate all times, reminding the reader how God's plan, the Gospel scheme of salvation, stretches over all history.
The second part, "The Scourging," similarly makes complex allusions to underline the typological significance of the events it relates. The story begins when Mary and Christ are sitting at their doorstep.
On them the gleams of light
. . . seemed like the gems
Which deck Our Lady's shrine when the incense- smoke
Ascends before her, like them, dimly seen
Behind the stream of white and slanting rays
Which came from heaven, as a veil of light,
Across the darkened porch, and glanced upon
Once again, the poet relates natural, realistically described details which function doubly as types. First of all, they recall the incense of the levitical sacrifice and possibly also make a distant allusion to the cornerstone upon which the new dispensation will be erected. More importantly, the proleptic analogy suggests the completion of the process we are watching, for Collinson, who here shows his High Church leanings, makes the scene of Mary and Jesus prefigure the prayers to both. All these allusions, however, merely serve to prepare for the explicit type which the title "completes."
As Christ and his mother watch the passers-by, they observe two men cruelly beat a young, overloaded donkey in a scene that might have come from Dostoyevsky.
Passing the door, the ass turned round its head,
And looked on Jesus: and he knew the look;
And, knowing it, knew too the strange dark cross
Lying upon its shoulders and its back.
To intensify the painful recognition, Collinson makes the ass a foal of the one which carried the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt. Having recognized it and its embodiment of universal earthly suffering, the child sits down by his mother with "that shadow of deep grief/Upon his brow," something which Mary was to remember in "days that came." One of Collinson's finer touches is to make both the painful recognition of sorrow and the physical beating prefigure the Passion. Like Hunt's The Shadow of Death, Collinson's poem asserts that Christ's very descent into human flesh is both a source and a type of his later sacrifice.
In the third section, "The Crowning with Thorns," Christ moves to center-stage for the first time, though even now he remains passive, an observer. When some friendly children see Christ sitting alone, they playfully make him their king, putting a hawthorn wreath on his head and a reed in his hand. They announce they would prefer him as their ruler, and when he meekly accepts his role,
the children knelt,
And cast their simple offerings at his feet:
And, almost wondering why they loved him so,
Kissed him with reverence, promising to yield
But when the children happily continue on their way, Christ again finds himself with forebodings.
Part four, the briefest in the poem, relates that when Christ ran to help the aged Joseph with a piece of wood,
Joseph said: "My child, it is God's will
That I should work for thee until thou art
Of age to help thyself. - Bide thou his time
Which cometh - when thou wilt be strong enough,
And on thy shoulders bear a tree like this."
Without replying, Jesus "lifted deep prophetic eyes/Full in the old man's face," and ran before him to open the door of the workshop. Collinson makes this everyday episode serve as a type, not only for his title "Jesus Carrying his Cross" but also for the man, taken as a type of all Christians, who helped him bear his burden. In this section, as in the one before, Christ gradually begins to receive intimations about his own nature and fate, whereas in the opening two he grieves primarily for humanity and all living things.
Collinson does not, however, lead him to a full perception of his fate in "The Crucifixion," which closes the poem, because he believed that God's mercy kept such things veiled until later. This, the most effective part of Collinson's poem, incorporates a prophetic dream which serves as a poetic climax, much in the manner of the one in Tennyson's later "The Coming of Arthur." In fact, throughout this section there are interesting anticipations of both Browning and Tennyson which suggest that when inspired Collinson could be a very effective poet. Part five opens on Christ's eighth birthday when Mary names a pet lamb after him to please the child, saying:
"And we will sign it with a small red cross
Upon the back, a mark to know it by."
And Jesus loved the lamb.
One spring evening after their work is completed for the day, Mary and Jesus walk to a pasture to play with the lamb, and on the way home she tells him about her dream of wandering in a wasteland - a nightmare that would appear clearly derivative of Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" and Tennyson's "Holy Grail" had it not been written much earlier than either. Mary tells Jesus:
"I dreamed a weary way I had to go
Alone, across an unknown land: such wastes
We sometimes see in visions of the night,
Barren and dimly lighted. There was not
A tree in sight, save one seared leafless trunk,
Like a rude cross."
She explains how she walked within a parched, starved wasteland, which the poet describes in effective detail, until she closed her eyes to shut out the horrible sight. When she opened them, she found herself in a changed landscape, now surrounded by mists.
"But soon, far off, I saw a dull green light
Break through the clouds, which fell across the earth,
Like death upon a bad man's upturned face.
Sudden it burst with fifty forked darts
In one white flash, so dazzling bright it seemed
To hide the landscape in one blaze of light."
She suddenly realized that this bolt of lightning had scorched the tree, and looking more closely she perceived at its base a single ewe
"Bleating upon the edge of a deep pit,
Unseen till now, choked up with briars and thorns;
And into this a little snow white lamb,
Like to thine own, had fallen. It was dead
And cold, and must have lain there very long."
Drawing upon the biblical imagery made popular by hymns, Mary unknowingly describes this lamb as an elaborate image of Christ:
"For many cruel thorns had torn its head,
And bleeding feet; and one had pierced its side,
From which flowed blood and water."
Stooping to look at the face of the lamb, Mary saw it metamorphose into that of her own child, and she then awoke to discover Christ lying safely in his bed.
In this dream vision Collinson combines types of the harrowing of hell, the cross and Christ's death upon it, the Crown of Thorns and the spear which pierced his side, the grace which flowed from his wound, and the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Looking back to the stricken rock in Exodus and forward to Revelation, this vision serves as a powerfully prophetic element in the poem.
To his mother's words, Christ responds quietly that God speaks to those he loves "sometimes in visions," but, as if he had understood the significance of Mary's dream, he adds that perhaps God spoke to Mary "Of things to come [which] his mercy partly veils/From thee." Perhaps, though,
Floated across thy mind of what we read
Aloud before we went to rest last night;
I mean that passage in Isaias" book,
Which tells about the patient suffering lamb,
And which it seems that no one understands."
Mary kisses her son, her tears falling upon him as if his words had brought her closer to the realization of what the prophetic dream foreshadowed. Collinson then closes his poem with the simple statement that "the child abode" with Mary and Joseph until the time when
All the things should be fulfilled in him
Which God had spoken by his prophets" mouth.
This surprisingly effective poem incorporates its points into what we may term a Tennysonian poetic structure. For like that greater poet, Collinson moves the reader through a series of separate panels, each of which builds towards its own symbolic climax, making them culminate in one final, all-embracing one. What is therefore so striking about "The Child Jesus" to one interested in the development of Victorian poetry is that it provides such an early example of the poetic structure Tennyson had employed partially developed in "The Palace of Art" (text) "The Lady of Shalott," and "The Two Voices," but which he was not to bring to its final form until In Memoriam , which was published the same year as Collinson's poem. Equally important, it effectively employs typology as both source of poetic structure and iconography, solving the poetic problems analogous to those Hunt faced in painting. Furthermore, the quiet scenes in "The Child Jesus" receive their drama and spiritual importance from their prefigurative meaning, something true of all of Hunt's pictures which use this symbolic mode. The Shadow of Death and The Finding present realistically depicted scenes which become far more powerful when the spectator perceives the presence of types and shadows of Christ's later career. Collinson's poem also emphasizes color and skilfully presented word-painting, thus demonstrating that in the early days of the Brotherhood there was an interest in a poetry which closely paralleled Pre-Raphaelite painterly style. Collinson's method and specific images anticipated — and may well have influenced — not only Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents and Hunt's Druids picture but also The Strayed Sheep and even The Scapegoat.
Created December 2001 Last modified 30 October 2020