- Christina Rossetti's "By Way of Remembrance":Address, Intertextuality, and Abiding Self-Scrutiny
Christina Rossetti's quartet of sonnets "By Way of Remembrance" remained unpublished during her lifetime; it first appears in the posthumous New Poems of 1896. In the preface to the comprehensive Poetical Works of 1904, Christina's brother and editor, William Michael Rossetti, mordantly observes that his decision to bring forward so much previously withheld material was met with no small degree of suspicion: "with regard to the volume . . . which I edited in 1896 after my sister's death, it has been alleged by some critics that I raked together all that I could find, however indifferent in several instances, and presented all to the public, who would gladly have dispensed with many."1 Protesting that he left in manuscript "a considerable number of compositions that were at [his] disposal," William goes on to identify eleven pieces in New Poems that he considers "to be up to the level of Christina Rossetti's best work . . . more especially" (PW, p. vii). "By Way of Remembrance" makes this select list.
William also lists this brief sonnet sequence among poems concerned with "personal experiences or emotions," one of seven "leading themes, or key-notes of feeling," in his sister's work (PW, p. xliii). "Personal experiences or emotions" is by far the most capacious of these themes in William's estimation, but one is led to wonder why it encompasses "By Way of Remembrance," which might fit at least as plausibly under "Death" or "The Aspiration for Rest," also identified as leading themes. A likely answer would be that William ascribes poems to this category pervasively, almost reflexively, as Alison Chapman has observed: " W. M. Rossetti, in his notes to the 1904 edition, is everywhere at pains to give the poetry a relation to an actual event. . . . When the evidence seems to be against assigning biographical data to a poem, W. M. Rossetti suggests his knowledge may not be comprehensive."2 [End Page 59] This insistence on a direct and immediate relationship between Christina's work and her life participates in a larger tendency, also perceptible in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's comments on her work in progress, to restrict her career to a "definition of the feminine, which embraces both the feminine subject within the poetry and the assumption of what a female poet should produce" (Chapman, p. 139).
Pursuing the biographical context of "By Way of Remembrance," then, risks extending a highly gendered and profoundly limiting assessment of Christina Rossetti's achievement. With this risk consistently in mind, I nevertheless hope in this essay to recover and emphasize this context, in an effort to deepen our understanding of "By Way of Remembrance" specifically and to refine the appreciation of the intertextual dynamics of Rossetti's sonnets more generally. The initial contention here will be that "By Way of Remembrance" addresses Christina's brother Dante Gabriel rather than, as is usually assumed, her friend and former suitor Charles Bagot Cayley. The quartet's composition date of 1870 indicates that this address occurs at a conspicuously fraught moment in Christina's and Gabriel's respective poetic careers. "By Way of Remembrance" explores the tensions of this moment: a crisis in Christina's confidence as an artist, the scandal attending the publication of Gabriel's first book of poems, and the challenge that this scandal poses both to Christina's religious commitments and to her sibling affections. From the recognition of these more contextual, private concerns, this essay then turns to the ways in which "By Way of Remembrance" enters into direct dialogue with Gabriel's mini-sequence of four sonnets "Willowwood." In contrast with Christina's published response to "Willowwood," "By Way of Remembrance" arrives at a more critically incisive and yet also more persuasively sympathetic reflection on her brother's work. Finally, I briefly examine how "By Way of Remembrance" contributes to Rossetti's later poetry. Rossetti incorporates two passages from "By Way of Remembrance" into subsequent published material, weaving them into other sonnets that appear in A Pageant and Other Poems in 1881. While these resettings might be read as an attempt to tame the provocations...