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  • “Home one and all”: Redeeming the Whore of Babylon in Christina Rossetti’s Religious Poetry

Christina Rossetti’s mode of interpreting the Book of Revelation as a spiritual guidebook for the individual believer is anomalous within the dominant exegetical traditions of historical and allegorical interpretation of this difficult biblical text. In The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on the Apocalypse, published in 1892 by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, she emphasizes this interpretive mode even in the language of her title; as a “devotional” commentary, it reflects the personal faith of its author and seeks to prompt the expression of such faith in its readers. While the “devotional commentary” was a genre associated with a number of Tractarian writers, Rossetti’s choice to adapt her exegetical study of Revelation to a form that invites personal reflection positions her simultaneously as authoritative exegete and humble Christian believer, or what Robert M. Kachur describes simply as “a female interpreter of the Scriptures” in a male-dominated field.1 In her Prefatory Note to The Face of the Deep, Rossetti claims neither to explore the sociopolitical context of Revelation nor to solve any coded allegorical signification in the text but rather to “seek and hope to find Patience” as part of a “pilgrim caravan.”2 Her lengthy commentary on the text is largely a meditation on what it tells the Christian about her covenantal relationship with God, and she incorporates her prayers and poems into the commentary as a deepening of that relationship. She underscores her personal interpretive mode in her discussion of the twelfth chapter of Revelation when she claims that “each figure appeals to our experience, even when it stands for some object unprecedented or surpassing” (p. 309); thus, the Woman Clothed with the Sun in this chapter may signify something beyond individual understanding, but she also functions as a revelation of something concretely connected with women’s lives. While Rossetti certainly considers the symbolic significance of the figures appearing to John of Patmos—the Woman Clothed with the Sun [End Page 105] as a symbol of the Christian church, for example—she returns always to the personal significance, or to the interpretation of such figures as representing human beings, as the place of her authority. Within her commentary on Revelation 12, she also asserts that “however skill may fail me to work out such a problem in matters celestial, in matters terrestrial the lesson is obvious” and goes on to instruct her reader to practice Christian faithfulness in this world (p. 326). The female figures of Revelation may certainly have cosmic resonance, Rossetti implies, yet they speak most directly to our human experience and to the experience of women in particular.

The kind of methodical treatment of biblical verses that characterizes the prose commentary of The Face of the Deep does not characterize Rossetti’s religious poetry, and the looseness of her allusions in that poetry enlarges possibilities for women’s experience within the Christian worldview. While she does exhibit a certain freedom in her prose by cross-referencing biblical passages and thus bringing together verses that seem disjointed (signaled rhetorically by remarks such as “I do not know whether it is allowable to connect texts as follows—” [p. 317]), she embraces a greater interpretive freedom in her apocalyptic poetry by employing a polysemic method of biblical allusion. This method characterizes her poetic career, evident in early as well as late works. In poems such as “The World” (composed in 1854), “From House to Home” (composed in 1858), and the devotional verse published as part of The Face of the Deep near the end of her life, her use of biblical allusion is shaped by a feminist theology that revises and recontextualizes Scripture, sometimes radically, to make it new.3 As Nilda Jimenez suggests in her concordance of biblical allusions and influence in Rossetti’s poetry, Rossetti’s use of Scripture is complicated because even though she typically transports unadulterated biblical phrases into her verse, she also tends to yoke phrases from multiple biblical sources in the process.4 While such yoking might strengthen a particular idea common to those sources, it more...


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pp. 105-125
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