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Christina Rossetti: Passionate poet showed remarkable insight

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Christina Rossetti was dedicated to exploring and understanding God through her poetry. Writer, teacher and bookshop manager, Carol O'Connor reflects on how Rosetti has helped her on her own spiritual path. 

If love is not worth loving,

then life is not worth living,

Nor aught is worth

remembering but well forgot;

For store is not worth storing

and gifts are not worth giving,

If love is not . . .

Christina Rossetti

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When Bp Stephen Cottrell was in Melbourne last year, he urged the clergy to consider their vocation as being a sentinel for God in the world. Such words are relevant for all Christians.

 

Sentinels in the Bible are often those figures who see themselves as watchers of God’s movement in the world. They stand at a post in order to protect what they perceive is important. At night, they walk around the walls of the city. They remain awake, alert and watch. Primarily they take on the role as witness. The word ‘sentinel’ comes from the Latin: sentire - to perceive.

 

Many philosophers and theologians have written on the topic of what it means to be a witness. The 20th century French philosopher Paul Ricoeur believed that a true and faithful witness is not an exact or even scrupulous narrator, but someone who has a passion, ‘personal devotion’ to the truth. He or she is more than a reporter. He or she testifies to something that personally concerns their commitment to truth.

 

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Christina Rossetti’s poem A Christmas Carol sets the birth of Jesus in a stable in wintry Victorian England. It is a familiar poem to many people. Here the reign of Christ is not set in any singular geographical place or time:

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign…

And the birth of Christ is seen as relational, deeply personal:
Yet what can I give Him,
Give Him my heart.

Christina Rossetti is one of the finest women poets in the 19th century. She was born in 1830 and grew up in London. I have come to read her poetry in terms of one woman’s commitment to articulate an inner relationship with God. For her, the giving over of your heart was a central truth in one’s relationship with God. As Rowan Williams reminds us, ‘The Promise of God is not an idea; the Promise of God is the vitality of prayer and the transformed life that the Spirit gives….’

 

Rossetti’s life became a pledge to be in and write from this transformed life of prayer in the Spirit. Remaining resolute and purposeful in her commitment to God, she was also vulnerable, overly self-scrupulous, and found herself full of inner contradictions. Rebellious, passionate, imaginative, her prayers and personal devotions bear witness to an intense inner struggle, as well as joyfulness at being alive in God. Although possessing a confident and audacious inner spirit she nonetheless watched out for God in emotionally hard places within herself. She protected her privacy but she did not always recognise her own fragility. Throughout her life she was moved to go back again and again to find moral and spiritual lessons in nature.

 

The more I read and delve into the vast breadth of her poetry, the more relatable I find her as a person. And the more I learn from her about God’s heart-beating presence in my own life, amongst the people I move alongside every day, and in our world.

 

Christina’s father, Gabriele, was a refugee. He was a great lover and teacher of the poet Dante. He brought the family up with a zeal for the arts and literature. Christina and her siblings (Maria, William and Dante) enjoyed many evenings at home being entertained by other Italian refugees. Poets and musicians, such as Paganini, often joined the family. Gabriele taught Italian at King’s College London. When Italian started going out of fashion with the onset of Prince Albert’s German influence, Gabriele’s work was cut back so he became home tutor. But gradually went blind.

 

Christina’s mother, Frances, though of Italian origin on her father’s side, was English. She was well educated and in turn, educated both Christina and Maria. Frances was the one who, both emotionally and practically, held the family together.

 

When Christina was a teenager the family fell on hard times; William began to support them. Later, Christina with her mother and Maria, made several attempts to start schools but were never successful for long. Dante Gabriel (DG) Rossetti was an artist, and needed money to be supported through school. (Wealthy great aunt Charlotte sometimes stepped in and helped him out of his financial messes). In the late 1840s Dante started the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood movement (of which Christina is a nominal female member), and he later worked with William Morris and the artisan workshops.

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