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The Forms of Discipline: Christina Rossetti's Religious Verse

From: Victorian Poetry
Volume 51, Number 3, Fall 2013
pp. 311-330 | 10.1353/vp.2013.0021

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The Christina Rossetti of literary history is very different from the Christina Rossetti of Victorian Britain. Canonization has reduced her body of work to a tiny fraction of what it once was; as Sharon Smulders notes, although Rossetti wrote "over a thousand poems . . . six volumes of devotional prose, two collections of fiction, and [a] juvenile novella," her fame "rests largely on 'Goblin Market' and a few short, melancholy lyrics." These few survivors form an unrepresentative sample, overwhelmingly drawn from her earlier works. Meanwhile, despite its success in her own lifetime—"over twenty-one thousand copies" of her last volume of poetry, Verses, had been printed by 1912—Rossetti's late devotional poetry has often been ignored by present-day readers. Even when scholars turn their attention to this poetry, it is often with an air of disappointment. Critics tend to read this body of work as an unimpressive footnote to her earlier accomplishments: exhausted, weary, and self-denying, revealing a poet who has traded vigor for dogma. Her devotional poetry has been characterized as full of "endless, futile repetition and finally resignation" and obsessed with a "sense of imprisonment within a small and shrinking universe of meaning." Even Isobel Armstrong's sympathetic account of Rossetti in her Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, Politics dismisses her late poetry, flatly claiming that "it is in Christina Rossetti's earlier poetry that her most powerful energies are at play." Rossetti's devotional verse, widely read in her lifetime, has been ignored or rejected in ours. In effect, we have created two Rossettis: the widely admired early Rossetti, welcome in classrooms and anthologies, and the late Rossetti, banished to the archive.

Some signs show that this trend might be changing. Scholars have paid increasing attention to Rossetti's religious beliefs, linking her work to the larger Victorian debates over Tractarianism. By reminding us of the importance of Rossetti's Christian faith, recent criticism has prepared the ground for reconsidering this later poetry. Much of this scholarship on Rossetti's devotional poetry tends to be biographical and historicist in nature, and it makes an indispensable contribution to our understanding of Rossetti. But although this scholarship rightly acknowledges her devotional poetry, it does not address the charges critics have made against it. Thematic and biographical criticism, however accomplished, cannot answer a dismissal based on stylistic or formal grounds. Even the scholarship that focuses on Rossetti's religious verse—for instance, Smulders' Christina Rossetti Revisited and Constance Hassett's Christina Rossetti: The Patience of Style —emphasizes content over form and style. Thus Smulders' marvelous analysis of Verses describes how the sonnet sequences can be understood as a "pilgrimage" (p. 168) with close reading taking a back seat to summary. And Hassett's study offers a largely thematic reading of Verses, in contrast to the rich stylistic analysis it gives Rossetti's earlier work. Since the religious poetry is largely read biographically or thematically, the idea that Rossetti's devotional poetry is passive, resigned, and exhausted can linger on unchallenged. Consequently, we overlook much of the poetry that made her work so popular with her Victorian readers.

But what if we were to read Rossetti's late poetry, not as a footnote to her widely read early work, but as a central part of Rossetti's formal accomplishments? In this reading of the devotional poetry, we see how she embraces both restrained verse forms and a repetitive but resourceful style to create religious verse that moves from despair and resignation to determined activity. This argument thus modifies Amy Billone's claim that Rossetti's sonnets are an "overpowering celebration of selfhood"; her poetry celebrates not the self as it is but religion's power to discipline and remake it. She uses poetry—particularly the sonnet's restrained form—to model how a self gradually conforms to Christian virtues. The style of her poetry and the religious content reinforce one another, both emphasizing the slow, difficult reshaping of the self that Rossetti places at the heart of Christian practice. Hence the best term to describe the preoccupation of her religious verse is not "renunciation" or "restraint," but "discipline." And while she certainly chooses to renounce a world she sees as...



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