Christina Rossetti: Passionate poet showed remarkable insight
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 . . .
As with figures such as Teresa of Avila, Rossetti intuits she is given room in her spiritual relationship with her Lord, to be audacious. Though demure and self-effacing, she is often nonetheless forthright. And though she suffers, it’s never a servile relationship she has with God. She is able to represent her suffering as one who witnesses the self in suffering, not wholly identifies with it. She knows that there has to be something else at work. Her audacity comes out of a striving to see clearly. From Sonnet 5:
Lord, Thou Thyself art Love and only Thou;
Yet I who am not love would fain love Thee;
But Thou alone being Love canst furnish me
With that same love my heart is craving now.
Allow my plea! for if Thou disallow,
No second fountain can I find but Thee;
No second hope or help is left to me,
No second anything, but only Thou.
O Love accept, according my request;
O Love exhaust, fulfilling my desire:
Uphold me with the strength that cannot tire,
Nerve me to labour till Thou bidst me rest,
Kindle my fire from Thine unkindled fire,
And charm the willing heart from out my breast.
Now, in this sonnet, five times within the first four lines the word Love, both capitalised and small, is used in relation to God. Here we have a God in whose relationship there can be ‘no second fountain’, indeed ‘no second anything.’ She appeals to this Love to ‘exhaust’ and ‘fulfil’ her desire, and finally ‘charm the willing heart from out my breast.’
Like what? Within the first five sonnets of this sequence, God has gone from being one whose ‘righteous wrath falls on us smiting sore’ in the first, to subsequently One in the third sonnet whom we can question with recognition that although we are nothing we still have at least human dignity, and now in the fifth to One who is recognised as a rapture of Love, of Spirit - for which ‘my heart is craving now’. These sonnets show a slippery, contradictory notion of God. Well, is it slippery - or Trinitarian? Or is it like all our relationships as human beings, complicated, messy and sometimes very painful.
Later, in Sonnet 7 she writes:
Love is the goal, love is the way we wend,
Love is our parallel unending line
Whose only perfect parallel is Christ,
Beginning not begun, End without end.
As a friend likes to remind me, only God is good, because only God is perfect. Here the only perfect parallel of God is in Christ. And Christ is Love.
Reading Christina Rossetti’s poetry takes us through a wide range of complicated feelings and contradictions about how human life can be lived in God. There is a great commotion of feeling going on inside her. (Is it any surprise that at the end of her life she chose to write a commentary on the Book of Revelation?) It’s as if she tries to hold together inside herself everything that she has experienced. But what is it that holds it all together, that ultimately enables her to hold herself together? She sifts and sorts. It comes through - again and again - gently, quietly, when the shadows fall away and the dross is let go. The underlying presence in her poetry is that recognition that God is Love. Here, tucked away in The Face of the Deep: a Devotional Commentary on the Apocalypse, is this:
Love alone the worthy law of love:
All other laws have pre-supposed a taint:
Love is the law from kindled saint to saint,
From lamb to lamb, from tender dove to dove.
Love is the motive of all things that move
Harmonious by free will without constraint:
Love learns and teaches: love shall man acquaint
With all he lacks, which all his lack is love.
Because Love is the fountain, I discern
The stream as love: for what but love should flow
From fountain Love? not bitter from the sweet!
I ignorant, have I laid claim to know?
Oh teach me, Love, such knowledge as is meet
For one to know who is fain to love and learn.
Though proclaiming herself still being in ignorance, she yet contradicts herself and professes to a part that does know what the motive is of ‘all things that move’: Love. It’s love that both teaches, and learns. It’s the fountain and the stream.
Rossetti has especially helped me on my own spiritual path with regards to an understanding of silence. It is only ultimately, in the places of silence and the unsaid, that the revelation of God dwells. In her poem Golden Silences there are two forms of silence: the inward one of worldly suffering, and the unknown one of death. But there is also the ‘sowing day’ where there shall be the obverse, the delighted ‘shout’ after all when all ‘silences vanish away’. And after death, there is the promise of our ‘shout in his delight’ for ‘whoso reaps the ripened corn.’
In another poem, Hope Carol, Rossetti longs to see what she can at this time only hear. And what she longs to hear is not found in the obvious, day or night, of this world. She knows though that she has to keep herself present to and witnessing of, this in-between space. For it is only here that a person can be attuned to God’s revelation. This longing to see and hear will be fulfilled. But will happen only in God’s time, not Christina Rossetti’s time. God’s time, not in our time.
In Golden Silences and Hope Carol Rossetti has helped me understand that faith in God means to be both present and silent before God and in God’s world. In life we can be given glimpses of the eternal, but those glimpses can never be tied down. The longing doesn’t go away, but we are given hope, born out of Promise. But we are also given suffering. These are poems about God’s faithfulness to us - one day (outside time) there will be the shout; one day, the longed-for sight will be revealed. In many of her poems, she calls us to wait patiently. But, being who we are, it is not often that we do so.
Christina Rossetti lets us in on her inner lifelong struggle to register something of her own devotion to God and the nature of God’s Love for her. It’s a relationship that took her personally to amazing heights, and also great lows. After her death, the next door neighbour told her brother William about the screams she heard from Christina’s house as she lay alone in those final days before her death. And that’s her humanity. Because, implicit in being a sentinel is to be honest in Love about what you see, feel and hear; and, as Christina Rossetti knew too well, we ourselves are not God, we are human beings who have been created by God. Each one of us shares in a particular and unique relationship with our God. She shows us too that God’s Promise is not an idea, but something transformative and to be watched out for again and again.