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Christina Rossetti: Passionate poet showed remarkable insight

Christina Rossetti. Image:

A paper published in The Melbourne Anglican (TMA, October 2016, No 552, pp 23-24).

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

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.

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, Variable Wind-tone?

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.

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.