Christina Rossetti World Literature Analysis
Two equally strong but antithetical voices speak in Christina Rossetti’s poetry: the sensuous, which is with some justice associated by critics with Pre-Raphaelitism, and the ascetic, which is not confined to her devotional verse, but speaks also in her secular poems. The critics Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar have defined the aesthetics of renunciation as the key element of all Rossetti’s writing, and they suggest that her aesthetics derived less from her ascetic Christianity than from her position as a woman poet in Victorian England. The tension between the sensual and the ascetic, between revelry and renunciation, however it may be interpreted, is central to Rossetti’s poetry.
One temptation is to view this tension as the meeting of two intellectual movements in Victorian England: the Pre-Raphaelite movement in art and poetry and the Oxford Movement in theology, both of which profoundly influenced Rossetti’s thought and art. The Pre-Raphaelites got their name from their conviction that after the Italian painter Raphael (1483-1520), European art and poetry took a wrong turn toward representational realism and away from symbolism and simplicity. The poetry and art of the English Pre-Raphaelites, consequently, celebrated sensuality, minute detail, formal simplicity, and a symbolic system emulating medieval iconography. It is true, as Rossetti’s most recent critics have maintained, that she cannot be considered merely a passive learner of Pre-Raphaelitism—indeed, she must have influenced it as much as it influenced her. She was there at its beginning, and Goblin Market, and Other Poems was the first poetic voice of the movement, shining in popular and critical praise while the poetry of William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti lingered unnoticed. Her connection with the movement may be overemphasized, but it cannot be ignored.
The Oxford Movement, on the other hand, influenced Rossetti in more subtle ways. To begin with, she was not directly connected with it. It began at Oxford when she was little more than two years old. A group of young Anglican clerics, led by John Keble and John Henry Newman, sought to counter a tendency toward liberalism and secularism, and away from tradition, in the English church. One result was the development of a segment of the English church, known as the high church, whose piety looked back to earlier forms of devotion. It favored the concerns of the next world over the vanities of this one. In poetic imagery this piety takes the form of the renunciation that Gilbert and Gubar speak of.
The influence of such Oxford Movement piety is typically presented as a counterpoint to the Pre-Raphaelite sensuality of Rossetti’s poetry, but there is one common impulse in both movements. High-church devotion and Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics were attempts to recapture earlier traditions: the Pre-Raphaelites in art and the Oxford Movement in religion. T. S. Eliot, in his famous essay on the metaphysical poets, saw Christina Rossetti as continuing the poetic line established by the seventeenth century religious poets.
Next to the confluence of sensuality and renunciation in Rossetti’s poems, the most characteristic themes concern death and thwarted love. Her poems about death are remarkable for their attempt to adopt the point of view of the dead toward the living. In such poems as “Song” (1862), “Dream Land” (1850), “After Death” (1862), and “Sleeping at Last” (1893), the speaker of each poem is recently dead and looks back on life not with regret but relief at her escape. Her consistent image of death as sleep or rest from an ordeal may seem morbid or quietistic, but it also may be seen simply as an expression of the doctrine of soul sleep, the belief that the souls of the saved remained in a trance from the time of their deaths until Judgment Day.
The motif of love denied certainly suggests an autobiographical element: Rossetti refused three marriage proposals from two men between 1848 and 1866. A twentieth century biographer has contended that her love poems were inspired by a married man, William Bell Scott. Thwarted love can also be related to the renunciation theme in her writings. When the narrator of the brief lyric “No, Thank You, John” (1862) charmingly declines a marriage proposal, there is no sense of regret or loss, and in the poem “Amor Mundi” (1865) love is represented as a trap to be avoided. The title story of her first volume of fiction, “Commonplace” (1870), centers around a series of marriage proposals and rejections in the Charlmont family. The youngest sister, Jane, marries for money and languishes in a loveless marriage. Middle sister Lucy turns down many proposals, waiting for her ideal beau Alan Hartley, who ends up marrying another. Eldest sister Catherine remains single to devote herself to God, a choice strikingly like Rossetti’s own.
Rossetti’s sonnet “A Triad” (1862) is a similar analysis of three women thwarted in love, though Catherine’s religious option is not presented in the poem. One woman “shamed herself in love.” The second married respectably but, like Jane in “Commonplace,” without real love. The third remained a spinster, but unlike Catherine died still yearning for earthly love. In the sonnet, as well as in the short story, earthly love is neither an end in itself nor a guarantee of happiness, even if it is not the danger it seems to be in “Amor Mundi.” “A Triad” was first published in Goblin Market, and Other Poems, but reaction against the disturbing implications about love and marriage was so sharp that Rossetti deleted it from her collected volumes of 1875 and 1890. It did not appear in print again until after her death. A Spectator reviewer of “A Triad” called its “voluptuous passion” worthy of her brother Dante Gabriel, which was not meant as a compliment. A century after her death, critics still consider the conflict of passion and renunciation central to her poetry.
(The entire section is 2469 words.)