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  • Christina Rossetti, John Keble, and the Divine Gaze
  • Esther T. Hu (bio)

Although William Michael claimed that his sister "thought nothing of Keble as a poet," marginalia in Christina Rossetti's copy of The Christian Year (1827) show Keble's influence on her developing religious voice and vision.1 Recent scholarship has examined Rossetti's indebtedness to Keble and the Tractarian tradition: Diane D'Amico and David Kent's review, "Rossetti and the Tractarians,"2 traces contributions by Raymond Chapman, G. B. Tennyson, Linda Marshall, Antony Harrison, Mary Arseneau, Lorraine Kooistra, and others who have explored the connections between Rossetti and the Oxford Movement. Nevertheless, in reading Rossetti's St. Peter poems in tandem with Keble's "St. Peter's Day," from The Christian Year, we notice the poetic and theological distinctiveness of Rossetti's devotional poetics. Whereas Keble emphasizes St. Peter's prerogative and power of apostolic responsibility transmitted from Christ's divine commission,3 Rossetti emphasizes individual penitence and humility inspired by St. Peter's denial of knowing Christ, and Christ's movement in subsequently turning and looking at him. Rossetti transfigures the Divine Look, which appears in three stanzas in "St. Peter's Day," into a moment of sustained encounter: a gaze.4 She connects her St. Peter poems through the gesture of turning and looking, which becomes, in analogical terms, an outward physical sign of an inner spiritual conviction of repentance. Just as Rossetti's gesture of taking her heart in her hand and offering it to her Creator in "Twice" ("I take my heart in my hand—/ All that I have I bring" [ll. 41, 45])5 is powerful in its simplicity, here the elaboration of an ordinary gesture of "turning and looking"6 defines the Rossettian theme of penitence, with the recognition of repentance opening up the possibility of spiritual renewal and transformation as demonstrated by a renovation of the heart. Rossetti's sacred poetry offers a sense of renewed possibility for the individual—a sense of affection and comfort that her secular poetry rarely grants.

In Rossetti's religious poetics, comfort and hope originate from both gazing upon the Divine and the Divine gaze. Here gazing is different from merely looking. Although the King James Bible7 translators use "to gaze" and "to look" interchangeably ("look" refers to the Hebrew râ'âh (האך) as in "man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart [End Page 175] in 1 Samuel 16.7b and "look" also refers to the Greek ěmblěpō [έμβλέπω] as in "And the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter" in Luke 22.61a), in the English language a "look" implies a seeing that is usually less lengthy and intense than a "gaze": to direct one's attention to a subject ("look") differs from directing one's attention to a subject with studious and fastidious attention ("gaze").8 Rossetti transforms the look that appears in Keble's poem to a gaze to underscore the relationship between seer and seen.

Keble's objective for The Christian Year was to assist readers in bringing their "thoughts and feelings into more entire unison"9 with those in the Book of Common Prayer. Hence Keble's "St. Peter's Day" unsurprisingly derives from passages commemorating St. Peter's Day in The Book of Common Prayer. The Collect (a short prayer comprising an invocation, petition, and conclusion) begins with a supplication to God, who had commanded St. Peter to feed His flock, to "make . . . / all Bishops and Pastors diligently to preach thy holy Word, and the people obediently to follow the same."10 The next section, "For the Epistle," is taken from the description of Peter being released from prison by an angel in Acts 12. The final section is Matthew 16, which narrates St. Peter's recognition of Jesus as the Christ and Jesus' giving him the name Simon Peter, the rock upon which He will build His Church and to whom He will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven (p. 258).

Keble's "St. Peter's Day" begins with a spiritual affirmation of Peter. His reinstatement by Christ, through Christ's asking him, "Do you love me?" three times, immediately...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-7190
Print ISSN
0042-5206
Pages
pp. 175-189
Launched on MUSE
2008-06-15
Open Access
No
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