Poetry, Ecology & Faith in Christina Rossetti
The nineteenth century in Europe is often depicted as a time of rapid secularisation. Matthew Arnold's sea was withdrawing over Dover beach and religion was under sustained assault - historical criticism roughed up the Bible's integrity, Feuerbach begat Marx and Darwin begat Freud. However, alongside these challenges, the century was also a time of religious renewal and experimentation both with and alongside the dominant Christian tradition.
In England, one of those renewals is represented by the Tractarian Movement that made explicit the continuing Catholic strand with the Anglican Church. It was grounded in both reflecting on the continuities between Anglicanism and Catholicism and on a re-discovery of common roots, most especially in the Church Fathers - of both West and East.
One of the people deeply influenced and shaped by this Movement was the poet and religious writer, Christina Rossetti, whose brother, the painter and poet, Dante Gabriel, was one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, themselves influenced, in different measure, by this renewal in Christianity.
One of its strands, that wove its way through, Rossetti's work, was a recognition that the whole created order, created out of and suffused with grace, was the vessel, ark of our salvation. We live in an inter-connected whole, where every animal, plant, stone serves its own unique purpose and the wider unfolding pattern of life. In seeking redemption, wholeness, we cannot think of individual salvation taking us apart from the world, but of a way of being in the world that celebrates, nurtures and fulfils its giftedness.
If one imagines that such language is strikingly 'ecological' you would be wholly right argues Emma Mason in her excellent study: 'Christina Rossetti: Poetry, Ecology, Faith' and not because she is guilty of 'presentism', reading back modern concern into earlier work, but because it sits foursquare at the heart of Rossetti's concern.
Rossetti, Mason demonstrates, was at every turn concerned with how we abide in life in such a way that it is free to fulfil its purposes free of our distortion, exploitation and greed. Indeed she felt that the apocalypse that brought a renewed creation was consistently postponed by the delay that we, humanity, cause by not using and enjoying the world aright, attentive to our obligations and our kinship with all living things.
This vision was rooted in the vision of the Fathers, most especially St Gregory of Nyssa, who saw grace not as something that is added to the world and certainly not something that is simply given to certain humans in the economy of their salvation, but is at the heart of the world, bringing it into continuous, gifted being through the self-emptying nature of God in Christ. God is not discovered in power but in weakness, in gift not in command. Our task is to attentively be present to the world, to nurture it and free ourselves to be present to it, navigating it in love.
Mason traces this developing inclusive theology through Rossetti's influences, development and work. We range from the theological and ecclesial influences, the pre-Raphaelites concern for typology (how the world's matter is read symbolically as pointing to divine qualities), her campaigning against vivisection, her awakened interest in St Francis and in her later reading of the Book of Revelation where a new heaven and new earth are accomplished primarily through our coming to a renewed, cleansed perception of where we actually stand and to what - the web of life - we are bonded to.
So, for example, the fact that Christ is compared to lamb, vine, stone is not simply an accident of typology but a reflection of the deep truth that Christ as logos is the very patterning of lamb, vine and stone - and that Christ in that patterning holds all things together in their unique identity. So, for example too, she has a compelling interest in the least attractive animals or insects precisely because they are the 'little ones' marginalised to our regard, recognised through Christ's 'weakness'.
As a book it is a compelling corrective to seeing Rossetti as a withdrawn and indeed gloomy figure (for which, in part, we have her brother, William, to thank as well as a culture more at ease with talking about death, of waiting for it, of meeting it, in her case, in the equanimity of it being a transition).
Indeed at her death, though in pain, she calmly went about writing her will, tidying her papers and ensuring her two cats had a viable home to go to! It is, also, corrective to seeing Rossetti as Virgina Woolf described her an 'intuitive poet' mainly expressive of feeling. She was, in fact, if not rigorously schooled, deeply read, thoughtful and her poems wrought constructions of intellect as well as deep feeling. Like any good scholarship, Mason sends you back to the poems with refreshed eyes helping to see the poems and, in this case, the world anew. Rossetti's fullest intention in getting us to read her was so to 'fall back' into a world of grace, reconnect with the world, shed 'our' grasping and see aright.