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 . . .
It was a very close family. Their relationships were complex, at times conflicted, but there always remained strong ties of affection between them. Gabriele was strongly anti-Papal. This suited Frances who took the children to Church of England parishes and eventually they attended Christ Church Albany St where Dodsworth was the Vicar and Pusey was connected. This was a parish that was greatly influenced by the Oxford Movement. In their teens, both William and Dante stopped going to church. William became a ‘free thinker’ - not quite our 21st atheist, but a little like; Dante continued to be fond of the church but only for aesthetic reasons.
In 1860, Christina and Maria became Associates to the All Saints Sisterhood, Marylebone; Maria became professed nun of the All Saints’ Community in 1873. Christina continued all religious observances including confession right up until her death. The Anglo-Catholic milieu influenced the nature of her poetry. Many poems express her strong faith in the sacramental and holy. And a number pay tribute to Festival Days and the Saints. Though incredibly shy in her disposition, in later life she became actively involved in many social justice issues: the plight of women in workhouses, working to stop the practice of child prostitution and the anti-vivisection movement. However, she could never quite come around to the cause of the suffragettes.
Christina Rossetti was a woman with a strong intellect. She was not diverse in her reading, but a deep and profound reader of the Bible, Dickens, Shakespeare, and Dante. By choice, albeit reluctantly, she remained single; the two men she wanted to marry during her life were Catholic and she couldn’t countenance this. It was a very painful choice. She chose to stay at home and look after her two elderly aunts, and her mother - writing her the many valentine poems that she could have well-written others. Amongst her spiritual confessors were the Revd Burrows - who became a close friend and someone with whom she could share the love of poetry, and a certain Revd Gutch who was not such a healthy influence in terms of his severe and austere teachings of God. Her own health was always fragile. There are ‘hidden periods’ in her life, gaps seemingly due to psychological or emotional stress. Christina herself refers to at least one ‘serious crisis.’ In the 1870s, she battled Graves disease, which left her disfigured, but it was breast cancer that she died of in 1894.
I am fascinated by this educated family with a passionate love of the arts. How do you move in a world that is highly conventional and yet remain true to your inner spirit? The children grew up in the Victorian Era with all its attendant proprieties and moral strictures, but the family sought to make its way on its own terms. The whole family loved animals and at one point Dante kept a small zoo in his back garden in London, including a few wombats. They strike me as a family that always moved at a slightly angular course with what it meant to be English. They fitted, but never quite.
And so it is with Rossetti’s poetry. It meets all the classical requirements of metre and convention, but it is as if her mind and her human senses are pledged to a central unfolding of something other within herself. Her language, though clever and witty, is full of play with logic, riddled with word games, artless and self-effacing in its tone but deadly serious in its commitment to truth.
So who is God for Rossetti? How is she trying to use language in order to express her understanding of God? Her poetry pivots on the need to find the essence of something. Even colours are examined. ‘What is Pink?’ she asks in one poem in Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book 1872. The movements of nature itself are also often extensively studied:
What are you telling,
But all the time, Rossetti can only come back to the nature of the thing itself:
What is orange? why, an orange,
Just an orange!
Though impenetrable, the thing itself, or nature, does not exist alone but relationally. This is where true meaning is found. Relationally, with and in God.
In 1881, Rossetti wrote a sequence of 28 Sonnets: Later Life - a Double Sonnet of Sonnets. Here she sets out in poetry a breadth and depth of spiritual understanding and theological insight that is remarkable. Just in the first seven sonnets, we have several shifts of perception.
The first sonnet begins with creation: God has the status of the eternal transcendent, the brilliant Maker of the world. Also, here is the stern authoritarian 19th century Victorian England image of God. The monosyllabic words (smite, rod, wrath, flames) evoke an exacting, pre-determining and patriarchal authority:
Before the mountains were brought forth, before
Earth and the world were made, then God was God:
And God will still be God, when flames shall roar
Round earth and heaven dissolving at His nod:
And this God is our God, even while His rod
Of righteous wrath falls on us smiting sore…
However, in the very first word of the third sonnet, Christina Rossetti addresses God directly: Thou. For the first time a personal relationship with God is acknowledged. God, for all His smiting and slaying in the first sonnet, is not quite so removed as we may think:
Thou Who didst make and knowest whereof we are made,
Oh bear in mind our dust and nothingness,
Our wordless tearless dumbness of distress.
Well, not quite ‘dumbness.’ Rossetti has another 24 sonnets to go, but the tone in this sonnet countenances the tone in the first. We have shifted from a God of majesty and distance, to one who is now personable. We are shown here that we can directly address God. And it’s not because God was once in a bad mood, and now is in a good mood. He is personable because he made us and because of redemption through Christ: ‘thou who didst die our death and fill our grave.’
This is a God who is attuned to human suffering, and we can appeal to Him: ‘Comfort us, save us, leave us not alone.’ And we can even remind Him, Who has had experience of it in Christ, about the actual essence of what it means to be human and to be of His creation: ‘remember Thou whereof we are made.’ For Rossetti, we may be dust and nothingness, but we can be called to be very bold in our nothingness, to the point of reminding God about it.