Victorian Studies 45.3 (2003) 551-553
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Women's Poetry and Religion in Victorian England: Jewish Identity and Christian Culture, by Cynthia Scheinberg; pp. 275. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002, £40.00, $55.00.
Cynthia Scheinberg's analysis of the religious poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, Grace Aguilar, and Amy Levy should significantly reshape the study of Victorian poetry. By offering a contrapuntal comparison of Victorian Christian poets with their Jewish contemporaries, she is able to expand our knowledge of the genres of Victorian women's religious poetry, and to illuminate the extensive conflict between Christians and Jews over possession of their shared symbols.
While acknowledging her debts to earlier feminists, Scheinberg levels a critique against some of their practices. In her introduction, she demonstrates conclusively that for thirty years feminists have frequently dismissed and oversimplified literary texts that exhibit a religious outlook. Feminists have often assumed that "women writers who actively supported religious institutions and affiliations were necessarily didactic, submissive, unenlightened, and uncreative reproducers of male religious hierarchy" (9). If religion was one of the founding discourses of patriarchy, then religious women poets must be patriarchal parrots. Scheinberg shows further that this reflexive discomfort with religiosity can veer specifically into the realm of anti-Semitism, when feminists identify Jewish scriptures as the most significant founding narratives of patriarchal oppression.
Yet Scheinberg demonstrates that religious Victorian women poets were much cannier than previous feminist critics have often supposed. She shows that these poets were able to adapt such religious genres as hymns, psalms, and midrashim to their own ends. They were able to write about theological questions, including "the authority of Biblical texts, traditional institutional authority, women's prophecy, and religious history" (20) in ways that both absorbed and questioned the terms of their received faiths.
Scheinberg begins by arguing that Jewish identity "was a central figure in Christian Victorian poetry and poetic theory" (27). Specifically, the theories of Thomas Carlyle, John Keble, John Henry Newman, Eneas Dallas, and Matthew Arnold, among others, were dependent on figurations of Jews and Jewishness. Victorian theorists sought to find the origins of poetry in the Bible, particularly in the prophecies and Davidic psalms. Yet it was equally important to show that latter-day prophets and psalmists like the English poets not only drew their inspiration from ancient Jewish singers, but transcended their precursors. Christian poets felt they had to supercede the Jewish prophets' emphasis on law in favor of "the theology of the heart" (51). Thus, Victorian theological poetic theory repeatedly engaged with Jewish difference as part of the process of constructing the English Christian poetic self, yet always with an explicit need to disassociate this theory of poetry from actual Jewish people.
In each chapter, Scheinberg demonstrates that a poet's lesser-known, often more overtly religious, poems help illuminate the better known, seemingly more secular, poems. For instance, she shows that Barrett Browning's early poem, "The Virgin Mary to the Child Jesus" (1838), "creates a strongly voiced, proud mother and female prophet" (76) who serves as a precursor to Aurora Leigh. Both Mary and Aurora Leigh find authority for their own prophecies in figures from the Hebrew Bible such as Miriam. Yet in both cases, they must find ways to distance themselves from their Hebrew precursors, if only so that, as Christians, they will not become subject to Jewish mastery. Scheinberg [End Page 551] suggests that Barrett Browning herself was intent on transforming her public persona from that of a potential "Hebraic monster" into a Christian woman poet (105).
The analysis of Rossetti's most famous poems—Goblin Market (1862) and Monna Innominata (1881)—similarly turns on a reading of less-known works. Scheinberg reads Seek and Find (1879), a devotional prose work published by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, next to the poem "By the Waters of Babylon B. C. 570" (1864) to show that Rossetti displays a "total investment in a Christian epistemology" (116). Rossetti suggests that the sanctity of ancient Jews has not descended to...