- Christina Rossetti and the Bible: Waiting with the Saints by Elizabeth Ludlow
Christina rossetti and the bible follows many roads in existing Christina Rossetti scholarship, so many that at times I struggled to track its own valuable contribution—namely, the claim that Rossetti’s literary corpus embodies an Augustinian-inflected vision of personhood, one constituted within the communion of saints, characterized by existential waiting, and sustained by typological readings of the Bible.
Ludlow impresses with her knowledge of existing Rossetti scholarship. However, she frequently begins a paragraph by summarizing another critic’s work, after which she presents her own claims, a stylistic approach that disrupts the flow of her argument; as a result, readers must continually work out the book’s thinking for themselves instead of following it through structured leads. The initial chapters evince this problem most acutely. The wide swath of scholarship that Ludlow calls upon also produces some doubt: can a single monograph on Rossetti truly extend criticism by dozens of other critics? Perhaps, but I found myself contrarily (and then guiltily because contrarily) wondering if the author dared not leave anyone out.
I was also unsettled by the preponderance of sentences that open with present participial phrases, some of them adrift from their intended subjects (for example, “Consisting of 353 pieces, Orby Shipley promotes …” ). The book also contains misplaced, doubled, and missing words, as in the example “Rossetti renews her commitment to interpreting the natural [End Page 200] world works as an emblem” (191). One wishes for better from Bloomsbury, especially for a book priced at $135 Canadian.
Despite these impediments, Christina Rossetti and the Bible repays reading. It reveals the extent to which Rossetti engaged a devotional heritage reaching much further back than her contemporary Tractarians, with their principles of typology, analogy, reserve, and sacramentalism. Ludlow works with all these concepts but goes beyond their now-familiar frameworks to elucidate Rossetti’s engagement with writers such as George Herbert, John Donne, Julian of Norwich, and Mary Sidney. She delves into Augustinian thinking as well, stressing the way that Augustine’s theology was “mediated through seventeenth-century English poetry and theology, as well as through the Tractarian writings”; she claims that “increasingly through her work, Rossetti’s delineation of the fractured and disintegrating ‘I’ who is earth-bound yet in possession of an indestructible spirit corresponds to this patristic model of personhood as a being in communion” (47).
Having laid her foundations in the introduction and first chapter (some of which reads as a second introduction), Ludlow proceeds chronologically through Rossetti’s poetry and prose with welcome comprehensiveness and the unifying insight that the same intellectual and spiritual queries propel both modes of Rossetti’s writing. Chapter 2 argues against long-standing claims of a theme and aesthetic of renunciation in Rossetti’s early poetry by positing Rossetti’s reorienting of desire toward heaven in echo of the Biblical Solomonic literature.
Ludlow demonstrates how Biblical understandings of grace and wisdom inform Rossetti’s early work; for instance, she argues that the early convent poems represent convent life diachronically to impart the “message that all are bound in the same communion of saints” (79). Rossetti’s mixing of temporal and spatial details in these poems corresponds, Ludlow argues, to “an existential perspective that encounters the whole of Scripture simultaneously as the living word that has transformative power” (84).
Chapter 3 extends the argument about grace and personhood by focusing on theosis, the “doctrine not only that God has come down to be where we are, in our humanness, but that he has lifted us up to be where he is in his divine splendour” (98). Such an “embodied encounter with God” (99) can occur in the present life as well as after death, and Ludlow finds the speakers of “The Prince’s Progress” and “A Royal Princess” aspiring “to overcome the perils of lived experience not simply through death [as in the convent poems] but through a lived-out Christian martyrdom” that presents a “counter-cultural stance” to...