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Beatification through Beautification:
Poetry in The Christian Lady's Magazine, 1834-1849
The devotional verse of a few Victorian women succeeded inreaching a mammoth and mammothly approving audience. Frances Ridley Havergal, Mrs. Cecil Frances Alexander, and Sarah Flower Adams, for example, wrote religious lyrics in the form of hymns, which as the nineteenth century progressed grew in popularity in dissenting, Evangelical, and even eventually High Church congregations. Numerous volumes of hymns appeared well before the 1861 Anglican standard, Hymns Ancient and Modern; such hymns as Sarah Flower Adams' "Nearer, my God, to Thee" and Mrs. Alexander's "All Things Bright and Beautiful" were profound popular successes. However, many other more obscure Victorian women were also writing devotional verse, for different kinds of audiences, in different media. Cynthia Scheinberg's important Women's Poetry and Religion in Victorian England presents an urgent demand for a new analysis of women's devotional verse, an examination that sets aside "an exclusive focus on gender [for] a more complex analytical model that allows for the structural influence of both gender and theology on women's poetry."1 This article argues that examination of the complex artistic and spiritual ambitions articulated in Victorian periodical verse will also help to illuminate the important and under-regarded influence brought to bear by women's devotional poetry on Victorian poetic and religious discourse.
This inquiry into the cultural contribution of little-known devotional women poets may perhaps take its bearings from the foremost female devotional writer of her time, Christina Rossetti (herself a composer of hymns, a number of which are still familiar to twenty-first century churchgoers). In recent years scholars have begun reading Rossetti's devotional prose and poetry for the provocative ways in which these writings negotiate with their biblical sources and work to incorporate rather than cancel out female experience. Joel Westerholme argues persuasively that while Rossetti disavows originality and authority in her devotional prose, her disclaimers are disingenuous: "She deprecates the scholarship she lacks, cites examples [End Page 261] of women's preeminence over men, and willingly contradicts other interpreters of the [biblical] passages."2 In her study of the devotional prose, Lynda Palazzo emphasizes Rossetti's imaginative engagement with the scriptures, her foregrounding of figurative language, and the individual imaginative response coming out of individual (gendered, and feminine) experience.3 And Linda Peterson argues that Rossettiworks forsimilar ends in her narrative poems, in order to show that "a female heroine and, by implication, a female artist—might be an active and original reader, interpreter, and creator of biblical types."4
These critics are helping to repair the neglect of an under-read and tantalizing aspect of Rossetti's oeuvre, but they are also contributing to the re-examination and reevaluation of the role of devotional writing in the Victorian period. The devotional prose commentaries that flourished in the nineteenth century were writings on and about scripture that, as Robert Kachur has demonstrated, posited sources of spiritual authority other than scholarly learning, and offered, rather than orthodox exegesis, readings that helped believers know what to do and how to feel in the exercise of their faith.5 Victorian women seized the model of the devotional commentary to empower themselves to overcome the social limitations on engagement with sacred topics. Women's translations of prose devotional commentary into poetic form, I argue in this article, enabled them further to construct relationships, between themselves and sacred knowledge, and between themselves and God, that went beyond those available in prose form.
In their use of poetry to explore a personal engagement with religious mystery, Rossetti, women hymn-writers, and the mostly anonymous devotional poets whose verse I read in this article betray a profound debt to the expressive model provided by Tractarianism. Tractarianism, as John Shelton Reed and David Hilliard have shown, helped to feminize the face of Church of England worship, elevating the sacramental, aesthetic, and emotional aspects of religious practice.6 Most importantly for this study, the aesthetics of the movement...