- Rossetti and the Tractarians
Christina Rossetti's life and art are closely connected to all aspects of the Oxford Movement. Beginning in 1843, she attended Christ Church, Albany Street, the church often described as the leading London church of the Oxford Movement. She supported Anglican religious sisterhoods; in fact, the first sisterhood was planned in her parish and established in nearby Park Village West in 1845. Later, both she and her sister, Maria, supported the work of The Society of All Saints, another of these Anglican sisterhoods. Maria became a fully professed sister of that order in 1876. In her own daily life, Rossetti engaged in regular devotional practices encouraged by members of the Oxford Movement, practicing confession and regularly receiving Holy Communion. She also was engaged in various forms of activism, including her work for fallen women and minors, her opposition to pew rentals, and her support of the anti-vivisectionist cause. Her reading indicates her admiration for the movement's leading figures. She carefully illustrated her own copies of Keble's Christian Year and Isaac Williams' The Altar. She owned a copy of John Henry Newman's Dream of Gerontius, and shortly after his death in 1890, she wrote a sonnet to honor him. In the last years of her life, the poetry and life of Isaac Williams seems to have been of special interest to her. In 1892 while recovering from cancer surgery, she enjoyed having her brother read to her from the Autobiography of Isaac Williams. Clearly, Rossetti was drawn to the Tractarians as both religious thinkers and poets.
In articles published shortly after her death, much is made of Rossetti's religious poetry. In his essay An Appreciation of the Late Christina Georgina Rossetti, Rev. B. F. Westcott, Lord Bishop of Durham, goes so far as to write, "she is pre-eminently the spiritual poet of our age." However, very few if any connections are made between Rossetti and the Tractarians, perhaps with the exception of William Robertson Nicoll's description of Rossetti as "the great poetess of Catholic Christianity," in other words, Anglo-Catholicism. Twenty years later in the introduction to the 1925 edition of Rossetti's Verses, W.K.L.C. appears to be the first to link directly Rossetti's High Church views with the Tractarians: "Her religious views were Tractarian, that is to say, Anglo-Catholic without any leaning toward Roman Catholicism and strongly Puritan."1 Early commentary on Rossetti may have overlooked signs of Tractarian influence because such signs would have associated her with Roman Catholicism. Certainly those critics who wanted to claim her as a [End Page 93] religious poet but who resisted what they perceived as Romanist influences would not have wished to note characteristics of the Oxford Movement in her work. For example, Mrs. Aubrey Richardson's assurance to her readers in Women of the Church of England (1907) that while Rossetti referred to Jesus as the "Heavenly Bridegroom," she was guiltless of "degrading the Divine to the low limits of an amourous personality," suggests that Richardson wanted to distance Rossetti from Roman Catholicism, a religion Richardson refers to as marked by "Vatican tyranny" and "gross superstitions."2
Two major studies in the 1930s of Rossetti's life and work (Dorothy Margaret Stuart's Christina Rossetti and Eleanor Thomas' Christina Georgina Rossetti) mention the significance of the Oxford Movement, but neither offers any close consideration of its influence. The title of Irene A. M. Shipton's 1933 article, "Christina Rossetti: The Poetess of the Oxford Movement," promises more; however, after asserting that the Oxford Movement was Rossetti's "spiritual home," Shipton then offers what is primarily a sketch of the poet's "saintly" life with some attention given to her religious poetry in rather general terms.3 Considering this absence of analysis of Rossetti's relationship with the Tractarians, the work of Desmond Morse-Boycott, published in 1932, stands out as something of an exception. In Lead, Kindly Light: Studies of the Saints and Heroes of the Oxford Movement, he includes a chapter on Rossetti. Although his commentary on Rossetti is similar to that of Shipton's in...