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Rossetti and Renewal

May 23, 2011

Christina Rossetti is probably best known for her poem-turned-Christmas-carol ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’. As a result of this and other religious works, she is often put on a pious pedestal, so before we move onto her sonnets, let’s take a look at a rejection poem – Rossetti’s way of saying “no thanks” to somebody who is smitten by her but for whom she couldn’t care less:

I never said I loved you, John […]

I dare say Meg or Moll would take
   Pity upon you, if you’d ask […]

I have no heart?—Perhaps I have not;
   But then you’re mad to take offence
That I don’t give you what I have not got:
      Use your own common sense.

Let bygones be bygones:
   Don’t call me false, who owed not to be true:
I’d rather answer “No” to fifty Johns
      Than answer “Yes” to you. […]

Here’s friendship for you if you like; but love,—
      No, thank you, John.[1]

Now that we’ve established that she’s not a complete angel, let’s have a look at Rossetti’s fantastic sonnets. In short, what Wordsworth and Smith did for the ‘sonnet revival’ in the Romantic period, Rossetti did for it in the Victorian Age. Each of them refashioned it in their own way.

The tight form of the sonnet – its formal preciseness and sense of control – reflects the sense of discipline Rossetti herself lived by, known as the ‘doctrine of reserve’. Instead of sharing her faith, she internalised it in her poetry. The irony is that this poetry got published, so the message was still heard.

Rossetti believed that the heart is full of health only when based and focused upon Christian, pure love. (Quite a claim – see Mona – The Art of Love for more on this).

Alongside her love of God which she openly celebrates in her poetry, Rossetti also explores the Victorian anxiety of unworthiness and guilt.

Death and time are two themes which crop up again and again in her poems – ideas which were commonplace in the Victorian climate of anxiety. Let’s take a look at ‘In Progress’to start with:

Silent with long-unbroken silences,
Centered in self yet not unpleased to please,
Gravely monotonous like a passing bell.[2]

The difference between Romantic and Victorian poetry is obvious here. While Wordsworth found a sense of calm and joy in recollection of memories of heightened sensitivity, and suggested a way to find daily fulfilment (see Wordsworth – Man, Nature, God), Rossetti laments the monotony of life. Contrast Wordsworth’s optimism to what Rossetti says in her sonnet ‘Later Life’:

I am sick of where I am and where I am not,
I am sick of foresight and of memory,
I am sick of all I have and all I see,
I am sick of self, and there is nothing new;
Oh weary impatient patience of my lot!

At least she gives an honest answer to the standard “how are you?” question, finishing the poem with “thus with myself: how fares it, Friends, with you?”[3]

The overall tone of monotony in ‘Later Life’ recalls ‘In Progress’, in which Rossetti talks of the “mindful[ness] of drudging daily common things”[4]. Are both these poems as hopeless as they appear? Maybe not. The title ‘In Progress’ is key here, as is the adjective “patient”, which appears twice in the tenth line: “Patient at pastime, patient at her work”.

What Rossetti is saying is that we are all works in progress, and that we have to be patient until the day when, if we’ve trusted in Jesus for our salvation, we will find “the trouble & tumult over”[5], “no more a tired heart downcast or overcast”[6].

Many people, when they think of heaven, picture clouds and angels and harps and singing endless hymns to a lofty god. But we saw in our exploration into Wordsworth, and even in the music review of Mona, that the God of the Bible is not a lofty, far-off God, but One who chose to enter the world he created, through his Son Jesus, who said: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

The Bible’s concept of heaven is renewal: a New Heaven and a New Earth, a place of “rest”[7] and a place of joy, where all our suffering will pass away, and we will be made completely pure and holy, because of what Jesus has done for us.

It’s not always easy trusting in this, but God knows that. He even acknowledges that young people like us can also become weary in our struggles:

“Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40:30-31)

Surely, then, it’s worth it for that. At least, Rossetti thinks so:

Never despairing, often fainting, ruing,
But looking back, ah never!
Faint yet pursuing, faint yet still pursuing

But isn’t Rossetti suggesting in these lines about pursuing that the responsibility lies with us? Surely that’s a contradiction of what Jesus said about rest from burdens. The hope is a sure and certain one[9], because there is a promise that, if we hope in the Lord, he will renew our strength.

Maybe Rossetti was too preoccupied with the Victorian sense of self – “I am sick of self, and there is nothing new”[10] – that she lost sight of what the Bible says about being a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17) [11]. You see, even though we aren’t yet on the New Earth – “so out of reach while quite within my reach” [12] – we can live in certain hope of it, if we trust in Jesus, and not only that – we can also be inwardly renewed while here on earth.

[1] No, Thank You, John (1860). All Rossetti quotes are taken from the Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Victorian Age. (Eighth Edition, Volume D)
[2] In Progress. (1862)
[3] From Later Life (1881)
[4] In Progress (1862)
[5] Sleeping at Last (1896)
[6] Ibid.
[7] Cardinal Newman (1890) The writer of Hebrews explores this concept further: “Now we who have believed enter that rest […] There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his.” (Hebrews 4:3, 9-10)
[8] A Life’s Parallels (1881)
[9] See also Hebrews 11:1 – “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”
[10] From Later Life (1881)
[11] “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
[12] From Later Life (1881)
Feature image is in the public domain. The sources of the other photos can be found by clicking on them for the hyperlink.

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