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  • Limited Knowledge and the Tractarian Doctrine of Reserve in Christina Rossetti’s The Face of the Deep
  • Andrew D. Armond (bio)

For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

— I Corinthians 13.9–12

Much recent criticism that deals in any depth with specific Tractarian tendencies in Rossetti’s devotional prose tends to note the ways in which Rossetti’s position as a female interpreter of Scripture seems to contradict the “party line” of the Tractarians that would forbid women from such interpretive activity. For example, while Robert Kachur’s “Repositioning the Female Christian Reader: Christina Rossetti as Tractarian Hermeneut in The Face of the Deep” seeks ostensibly to examine the ways in which Rossetti’s exegetical method can properly be called “Tractarian,” he focuses mainly on Rossetti’s use of Tractarianism as a kind of subversive pattern of reading that shuns the authoritative voice of patriarchal biblical interpretation. When Kachur does focus on specific Tractarian tenets, he examines Rossetti’s reliance on Keble’s notion of the interdependence of poetry and religion; but ultimately, he concludes that Rossetti “question[s] the patriarchal interpretations of the Bible handed down to her.”1

Kevin Mills’s “Pearl Divers of the Apocalypse” begins by resisting strictly biographical and/or psychological readings of The Face of the Deep. Mills observes that Rossetti’s protestations about the limits of her own knowledge and authority are couched in the rhetoric of “surfaces” and “depths.”2 Obviously, [End Page 219] this rhetoric is reflected primarily in the title of the work, as Rossetti herself avers: “what I write professes to be a surface study of an unfathomable depth.”3 Following the typical line of criticism, Mills writes that “certain aspects of the commentary suggest that this perceived lack of interpretive authority and the intertextual reflection to which it gives rise are, at least in part, a matter of gender ideology”; however, he also comes to the more obvious and salient conclusion that Rossetti’s hesitation is “also a matter of what knowledge is legitimate within the bounds of faith and obedience” (p. 27).

Mills comes close to finding that Rossetti’s theological hesitancy concerning the secret mysteries of God derives from the Tractarian teaching known as Reserve. However, disappointingly, he ends his piece with conjecture about the relation of Rossetti’s hesitancies in The Face of the Deep to personal psychological tendencies that she might have been afraid to explore.4 He believes that this psychological reading of The Face of the Deep, first set forth by Jan Marsh in her biography of Rossetti, “would help to explain why the encounters with Christ are couched in a double rhetoric of confrontation with eyes that see into the heart of hearts, and of the face-to-face meeting: a split desire to be made whole and yet to preserve the secret” (Mills, p. 36). Though not as overtly psychological, Lynda Palazzo, in her 2002 monograph Christina Rossetti’s Feminist Theology, seems to recognize, as does Mills, the “tension between [Rossetti’s] need for a meaningful response [to Scripture] and her fear of overstepping the limit.”5 However, while Palazzo rightly brings attention to this creative tension between exploration and hesitation, and while her explanation that Rossetti offers in The Face of the Deep an “alternative, feminist, hermeneutic” (p. 122) is certainly plausible, Palazzo, like Mills, Marsh, and other Rossetti critics, ultimately fails to link Rossetti’s fears of “overstepping the limit” to what most certainly would have been a strong influence on her theological and literary thinking: the Tractarian doctrine of Reserve.

It is my understanding, in contradistinction to the above critics, that Rossetti’s tension between exploration and hesitation can be understood most clearly through this...


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pp. 219-241
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