- Women Poets
The year 2016 provided a number of fresh perspectives on Victorian women poets. A number of articles took on religious concerns, broadly conceived, viewing them in light of scientific culture and print culture. In a startling and engaging article, "After Death: Christina Rossetti's Timescales of Catastrophe" [End Page 414] (Nineteenth-Century Contexts 38, no. 5 : 399–415), Nathan K. Hensley brings a topical approach to the poetry of Rossetti, relating her ever-present focus on death and her late-career concern with end times and the apocalypse to urgent current questions about the climate-change crisis: how can we imagine catastrophic ends on a scale both large and small? What does it mean to imagine a time beyond the end of our species, when potentially no living thing will be able to imagine back into the past? Noting that Rossetti's writing in both poetry and prose is largely without consolation, Hensley focuses on her unresolvable temporal paradoxes, the way infinite time can feel short, and vice versa, and how God can both be outside of time altogether and yet be conceived of and even communicate through language. Hensley deftly shows how Rossetti manipulates form, in rhyme, meter, and "fractal scalar procedure" to think through these temporal paradoxes (p. 408). Lest one think that Rossetti entertained only a religious rather than a scientific concept of end times, Hensley shows how Rossetti connects these in her devotional diary Time Flies, comparing particles escaping the sun to a fall into a bottomless pit. This correspondence between religious rhetoric and an ecocritical approach liberates Rossetti from being seen as a "religious scold and anti-secular mystic" (p. 412). Hensley asserts that Rossetti teaches us how to think about the apocalypse, yet the carpe diem sentiment at the end of the article, that we must treasure "an infinitely brief instant of lucky, glowing warmth in a universe of frigid indifference" (p. 413), seems more Hensley's than Rossetti's.
Taking up Rossetti's paradoxes from another perspective Adam Mazel's "'You, Guess': The Enigmas of Christina Rossetti" (Victorian Literature and Culture 44 : 511–533) notes the popularity of riddles, particularly for women and children from the middle of the eighteenth through the nineteenth century, as well as Christina Rossetti's contributions to the genre very early in her career. Mazel argues that Rossetti drew on her experience with riddles and enigmas to develop her own often mysterious and almost always reserved style. But whereas her word games in Marshall's Ladies Daily Remembrancer: For 1850 had satisfying solutions, her later "enigmatic lyrics" toyed with the impossibility of solutions. Mazel argues that Rossetti "reworked the structures of the riddle to rework Tractarian aesthetics" (p. 513). Mazel is particularly illuminating on the question of Rossetti's use of lists of similes. By allowing the "tenor to be like all these different vehicles at once," Rossetti draws readers' attention to the unknowable. Rossetti does not so much withhold solutions, as is sometimes assumed, as aim to expand our conceptual possibilities in order to hint at the divine. Her use of a genre from popular culture to evoke the divine is all the more surprising, Mazel suggests. [End Page 415]
Two articles this year address women poets' responses to evolution and make a particularly provocative pair. In "Evolution and the Struggle of Love in Emily Pfeiffer's Sonnets" (VP 54, no. 3 : 297–324), Karen Dieleman argues that Emily Pfeiffer's sonnets on evolution accept the science behind it but express concern about the bleak worldview it implies. Evolution and natural selection not only eviscerate the possibility of divine order but put the very concept of human meaning at risk, the product of a "Gospel of Dread Tidings." While other critics have read isolated poems such as "A Chrysalis" as optimistic about evolution, Dieleman carefully examines a broad range of Pfeiffer's poems, taking into account as far as possible precise publication and composition dates in order to track the development of Pfeiffer's thought on the subject. She also notes that whereas Darwin and Spencer saw evolution as promising an upward trajectory for human morality, Pfeiffer anticipates the...