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Christina Rossetti: Poetry, ecology, faith, by Emma Mason 

14 December 2018

This Tractarian looked forward, writes Suzanne Fagence Cooper

EMMA MASON’s new critical study of Christina Rossetti’s poetry and prose is the latest in the Oxford University Press’s series Spiritual Lives.

Mason looks closely at her “contribution to emergent environmentalism”, reading Rossetti as a poet who “gentles” her audience into finding Grace through a recognition of the “kinness of nature”. Her poems of swans and stars, lilies and rainbows are reinterpreted in the light of Rossetti’s Tractarian faith.

Keble, Pusey, and Newman all privileged poetry as an art that could conjure the “world out of sight”, and represent the intercommunion of all Creation. The notion of “reserve”, within the Tractarian tradition — the unfolding of divine truth gradually, delightfully — seems particularly relevant with Rossetti. She exemplifies Keble’s ideal, crafting poetry at once “fervent yet sober, . . . neither wild and passionate, nor light and airy.”

Mason also highlights Rossetti’s family connections with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which her brother Gabriel’s described as an “Art-Catholic”. Her works were reviewed in the same terms as the Brotherhood’s radical paintings. As one critic explained, opening a volume of her verse was “like passing from a picture gallery to the real nature out-of-doors”. Her freshness and her “innocent eye” are in tune with their art.

The most transformational encounter, however, came during Advent 1848. Rossetti heard the Apocalyptic sermons — “The Signs of the Times” — preached at Christ Church, Albany Street, by her priest, William Dodsworth (who later became a Roman Catholic.) The poet never lost that sense of wonder and the expectation of the Second Coming of Christ.

AlamyChristina Rossetti (second from left) with (left and right) her brothers Dante Gabriel and William Michael, and their mother, in a photo taken by the Revd C. L. Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) in 1863

She later wrote her own devotional commentary on the Revelation of St John, The Face of the Deep. But she looks forward not to destruction, but to a “quickening”, a “self-emptying”, and hopeful fellowship. She sees rain-showers, dews, tears, and the sea as a “sustained flow of baptismal grace” which redeems all Creation. Only humankind is excluded, as “corrupted sons of earth” who have chosen to stand apart; what Mason calls the “voracious world . . . disconnected and commodified”.

Rossetti reveals “A chancel-vault of gloom and star, A rapture where the anthems are, . . . Alas, man’s daily life — what else? — Is out of tune with daily bells.” Her poems are a timely reminder of personal responsibility and the possibilities of communion. If only we could see as clearly as she does how “All colours turn to green.”

Dr Suzanne Fagence Cooper is a cultural historian with an interest in Victorian and 20th-century Britain. She is currently teaching at the University of York.

Christina Rossetti: Poetry, ecology, faith
Emma Mason
OUP £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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