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KNOCKING AT PARADISE: CHRISTINA ROSETTI REWRITES "THE BLESSED DAMOZEL" JANNA KNITTEL Oregon State University Even in the 1990s, literary critics stereotype the Victorian age as one of prudery and sexual repression. In a 1994 essay, Nadean Bishop argues that much of Christina Rosetti's poetry reveals "the anguish which the internal clash between eroticism and religion caused" (145). By examining this supposed "clash" I question the belief that Rossetti's "religious fervor . . . cannot cohabit with sexual passion" (Bishop 141). In particular, I would like to counter the still prevalent view of Rossetti as a woman who "recoiled from the surrounding sexuality" of her artistic milieu (Bishop 139) by turning to devotional poetry. On the contrary, Rossetti participated in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood's poetic practice of mingling eroticism and religion and even revised this practice in her own poetry, to her own ends. In the mid-nineteenth-century, contemporary critics of Rossetti's poetry are mostly concerned with reviewing her just-published volumes, comparing her with her famous brother, and questioning the moral content of "Goblin Market." But some of this early criticism attempts to address — and even to resolve — the "clash" that Bishop identifies. The genres Rossetti employs, particularly the love lyric and the devotional poem, are perceived as being in conflict. Mid-nineteenth-century critics typically compare the relative merit of these two genres: So far for the general run of Miss Rossetti's [secular] poems. It will be seen that they are nothing very wonderful, in whatever light we view them. They are not nearly so great as her brother's; indeed, they will not stand comparison with them at all. . . . But there is a certain class of her poems examination of which we have reserved for the last. Miss Rossetti has set up a little devotional shrine here and there throughout the volume, where we find her on her knees, with a strong faith___ (Catholic World 1876, 126) Victorian Review 24.1 (Summer 1998) JANNA KNITTEL13 Rossetti's poetry is automatically divided into secular and devotional poetry. And the devotional poetry is perceived as unique in content. This critic concludes evaluation of Rossetti's poetry by reasserting this distinction between genres: "We might go on quoting with pleasure and admiration most of these devotional pieces, but enough has been given to show how different a writer is Miss Rossetti in her religious and in her worldly mood" (129). In the twentieth century, the project of differentiating these genres has continued. Antony Harrison argues that "[Christina] Rossetti's art serves as a vehicle for mediating between the system of religious values taught her in part by these men [John Keble and other Tractarian poets], on the one hand, and the aesthetic and social values of PreRaphaelitism , on the other" (69). As evidence, he cites her own publishing practices: Within each of her published volumes until 1893 . . . she insisted upon juxtaposing her "Pre-Raphaelite" poems — often concerned with some version or situation of erotic love — with her "devotional" poetry. . . . Her lifelong habit of placing the PreRaphaelite poems alongside the devotional works . . . tells us a good deal about her own (and indeed her publisher Macmillan's) awareness of a reading public that would see the two kinds of verse as mutually reinforcing rather than mutually exclusive. (69) Given the striking similarities that often surface between Rossetti's devotional poems and her Pre-Raphaelite poems, it is curious that Harrison dismisses what Rossetti's readers and her publisher perceive as a "mutually reinforcing" relationship between these two genres. When he adds that, "In 1893, perhaps in response to the special popularity of her specifically devotional poems as well as from a desire to order them all within a coherent structure, she collected her devotional pieces as Verses" (69), Harrison insists that there are fundamental differences between the genres, that there is a clear distinction between "specifically devotional poems" and others, when, in fact, that distinction is seldom clear.1 Furthermore, he glosses over the design of the devotional volume, Verses, assuming that Rossetti intended it to meet the public's demand for devotional verse, but not questioning which poems are included. As Harrison rightly points out, Rossetti herself maintained some...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 12-28
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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