Christina Rossetti's Dialogical Devotion

Article excerpt

Although the Bible remains an acknowledged source of influence on Western literature, the Anglo-Catholic poet Christina Rossetti incorporates the divine Word with particular prominence. Throughout this prolific Victorian poet's writing, scriptural imagery is often overt rather than covert, and Rossetti seems content to be shaped by a ready-made and authoritative language rather than respond actively to it--an impression that has made many of her modern critics react ambivalently to her religious works. Indeed, critical reactions to Scripture's intertextuality in Rossetti's ceuvre have waxed and waned in favor according to the cultural tides of the time. Although her fervent religiosity was perceived as a mark of literary distinction by her nineteenth-century contemporaries, feminist criticism over the past several decades has rewritten the scriptural influence on Rossetti as signifying something else--anything else, that is, besides the powerful hold it had on her imagination. (1) Beginning with Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's vision of Rossetti as a poet who practiced an "aesthetic of renunciation" (558), Rossetti scholarship has either rejected the devotional aspects of her writing or examined them as a way to "recover" Rossetti's religion by framing it within a more palatable paradigm of power and subversion. (2) Rossetti critics frequently lament her reputation as a religious poet and urge us to look beyond her convictions for richer readings. As one writer puts it, "While it is possible to impose orthodox religious readings on most of [Rossetti's] poems, such a practice smothers undercurrents of doubt and hopelessness which broaden her work and place it in the intellectual company of the major Victorian poets" (Sullivan 237). The use of the word "smother" is perhaps just as revealing as the inverse relation implied between orthodox religion and intellect; indeed, the verb pinpoints the prevalent perception of Rossetti's faith (she was repressed by her religious convictions) and also indicates the kind of suppression to which some critics have subjected Rossetti's more pointedly religious texts. Ironically, the initiative to "open up" Rossetti's works has locked her into the position of someone who must be recuperated from her faith.

Recent Rossetti scholarship has begun to emphasize rather than elide the devotional aspect, granting critical space in which Rossetti, as Diane D'Amico puts it, can be "a woman poet of faith" and not a writer whose faith is a sublimation for something else (9). Beginning in 1994 with Linda Peterson's "Restoring the Book: The Typological Hermeneutics of the PRB," there has been renewed interest in Rossetti's engagement with Christian thought, especially in how she can be a part of the community of women who are "active readers of, and writers about, the sacred scriptures" (212). Moreover, the often-neglected part of Rossetti's literary corpus, her devotional prose, is receiving fresh attention. Critical studies such as Lynda Palazzo's "The Poet and the Bible: Christina Rossetti's Feminist Hermeneutics" and Christina Rossetti's Feminist Theology explore her role as a female interpreter of Scripture; in addition, David A. Kent and P. G. Stanwood's introduction to Selected Prose of Christina Rossetti gives prominent place to her devotional prose. Palazzo establishes Rossetti as a reader of the Bible and writes, "It is not [...] her courage we need to admire [...] but the razor[-]sharp intellect and vision that identified in contemporary theological developments the potential for feminine and feminist theology" ("The Poet" 6).

Although Palazzo's book is valuable for acknowledging Rossetti's active engagement with Scripture, her insistence on constructing the writer solely as a feminist reader seems to set unnecessary boundaries between Rossetti's prose and poetry. (3) Likewise, Kent and Stanwood's otherwise instructive introduction limits the connection between the two genres to only her religious poetry. …