October 20, 2017

Advent with Christina Rossetti (1)

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On Advent Sundays this year, we will encourage contemplation using some of the seasonal poems of Christina Rossetti.

For years now, a favorite book in my library has been an old worn copy of The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti, published in 1904. A brief note in fountain pen ink inside the cover says that it was given as a Christmas gift in 1908, and a sticker in the back identifies the vendor as a bookshop in Belfast.

Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), was one of the most important women poets in Victorian England. A devout evangelical Anglican, she spurned one offer of marriage because her suitor converted to Roman Catholicism, and another because she “enquired into his creed and found he was not a Christian.” She never married or left home.

Her father was Italian and her mother English. Her godmother was Napoleon’s niece. Though she had wide exposure to a variety of people and cultures, her family was relatively poor and she spent most of her life involved in activities at home, with parents and siblings. In the memoir included in the book, her brother wrote, “…the life of Christina Rossetti presents hardly any incident.”

Christina was a scrupulous adherent of her faith. It is said she gave up playing chess because she found she enjoyed winning too much! Though she mixed with many prominent authors and artists in her day, she did not uniformly approve of their works. She pasted strips of paper over certain passages in Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon because she considered them anti-religious and offensive, and after doing so, she found herself able to enjoy the poem. After the death of her beloved brother Dante Gabriel, Rossetti became a recluse and stayed home, concentrating on her own religious life. Her older sister Maria, likewise observant, became an Anglican nun.

Christina_Rossetti_3After age fifteen, Christina Rossetti endured a life of poor health. As her brother describes it,

…any one who did not understand that Christina was an almost constant and often a sadly-smitten invalid, seeing at times the countenance of Death very close to her own, would form an extremely incorrect notion of her corporal, and thus in some sense of her spiritual, condition. She was compelled, even if not naturally disposed, to regard this world as a ‘valley of the shadow of death,’ and to make near acquaintance with promises, and also with threatenings, applicable to a different world.

Her faith was simple, submissive and passionate. She practiced religion as a true devotee with rigorous attention to fulfilling her duties. Rossetti’s scrupulosity provoked within her a constant spirit of despondency and led her to focus unremittingly upon her deficiencies and shortcomings. Critics have criticized her poetry as being “morbid,” with its emphasis on sin, death, and longing for the life beyond. Some of this must certainly be attributed to her physical condition, as well, perhaps, to early disappointment in love. Despite the dark themes that often marked her writings, Christina Rossetti’s poems give evidence of a vibrant and vivid inner life.

At this time of year, I pull my book of Rossetti poems off the shelf and read them as a regular part of my seasonal devotions. Her Christmas poems are treasures. They evoke both the darkness and light of Advent and Incarnation as few writings can. Who has painted a better picture of the cheerless chill of a world without Christ?

• • •

We see Rossetti’s capacity to describe the bleak side of life in the following Advent poem she wrote before 1886. It will be our meditation today on this first Sunday in Advent.

9670924922Earth grown old, yet still so green,
Deep beneath her crust of cold
Nurses fire unfelt, unseen:
Earth grown cold.

We who live are quickly told:
Millions more lie hid between
Inner swathings of her fold.

When will fire break up her screen?
When will life burst thro’ her mould?
Earth, earth, earth, thy cold is keen,
Earth grown cold.

Comments

  1. Christiane says:

    Hi Chaplain Mike,
    a lovely idea to use Christina Rossetti’s poetry for Advent reflections . . .

    on reading your post and the poem, it seems a wonder that ‘Earth Grown Cold’ was not also set to music as was Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’; there are such striking similarities in the seasonal imagery of these two poems
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZC9C5kHL884

    • Christiane,

      Slightly off-topic, but this morning while driving to church I heard Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” set to music, a folk band called Salamander Crossing. Great.

      Christina Rossetti great too and Chaplain Mike classy for posting this.

      • Drifting farther off-topic…

        Christina Rossetti’s poem “When I am dead, my dearest” is a gloomier look at death than Tennyson’s version.

        And crank up the heat and you get Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night.” As much as I like Thomas (Rage, rage, against the dying of the light) I’ll stick with Tennyson.

        But Rossetti has a good, honest, bittersweet look.

  2. I discovered Rosetti a little over ten years ago. I pasted excerpts of her poetry in a journal. She captured the Incarnation creatively and insightfully.

  3. “Who has painted a better picture of the cheerless chill of a world without Christ?”

    I think the picture she painted was of that part of her inner world which, despite the fact that she was devout and scrupulous, was still without Christ. Truly compelling poems, at least truly compelling modern poems, usually find their power in transforming the outer world into a mirror of the poet’s inner world, joys and struggles.

    “In the bleak midwinter…”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I think the picture she painted was of that part of her inner world which, despite the fact that she was devout and scrupulous, was still without Christ.

      i.e. “As a ROMISH Papist, she never Walked the Aisle and Said the Sinner’s Prayer(TM)”?

      • Huh? You lost me.

        Doesn’t the post say she was an evangelical Anglican? I’m Episcopalian; you know, there sorta kinda in the same communion, the Anglican Communion, that is.

        And I can guarantee that Rossetti was closer to being an aisle walker than I’ve ever been. Your interpreters credentials should be revoked.

  4. I am totally unfamiliar with the author or her works, and am attempting to keep an open mind.

    From the first poem noted in this post, and her personal history, I am doubting I will find much inspiration from her worldview. Frankly, she sounds like an isolated and naïve child. Encountering Christ is certainly possible in circumstances such as hers, but there is a HUGE gulf between rejecting the world and its concerns and not ever being exposed to realities beyond the nursery doors. I hope I am proven wrong….

    • Give it a try, Pattie. She has some beautiful poetry, not least the hymn “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which CM will probably post later. (Note to Mike: Be sure to include all the verses.) And don’t forget that the isolated life can lead to a rich inner life, especially in mystics and poets.

    • Pattie, Rossetti lived in the wilderness, a landscape we are familiar with here at IM. Perhaps this is where I find resonance with her poetry. The fact that some of that wilderness was of her own making does not disqualify her from consideration. We are all desperately in need of grace.

      • What can I give Him, poor as I am?
        If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
        If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
        Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

        – from Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter”

        As a P.S., I love the various English boychoirs’ rendition of this, in settings by Gustav Holst and also by Benjamin Britten. The final stanza can induce goosebumps.

    • Pattie, Victorian society had virtually no place for older single women. If she had been healthy enough to leave home, the best shr could have hoped for was a position as a governess or psid companion to an elderly woman.

      Also, the brother mentioned in the post (poet Dante Gabriel) led what people of the time might have referred to as a disdolute life. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of C. Rosetti’s behavior was a reaction against that.

      Finally, though i generally hate it when people psychoanalyze historical figures, it seems to me that she struggled with severe depression – which makes her creative work all the more remarkable.

  5. I have not one poetic bone in my body but I can appreciate talent. Ms. Rossetti had it.

    There is something about the longing in Advent that resonates with my heart. While I was in the Catholic Church the Purple vestments of the priest and the covered creche along with “O Come O Come Emmanuel” (in Latin, of course!) always stuck with me, even as a child. Today I just sense a loss in the protestant, evangelical observance. Our church does the Advent wreath, and the sermons are based on the meaning of each candle, so it is SOME comfort, but the overall tone is still not there. Perhaps it is just ME and my distant memories…

    • Gottlob Filderbauer says:

      Oscar, not all Protestants have a diminished Advent. “High Church” Protestants like the Anglicans and Lutherans (the latter being the original “evangelicals”– but don’t try telling the Baptists that!) keep pretty close to the small-c catholic practice of Advent. But I do understand your point about how the Advent wreath and sermons about the meaning of each candle are not quite enough. I was at a low-church evangelical service this morning, and they did the candle and read the lectionary scriptures– but the overall tone of the service and message was more glory-oriented, and not really penitential. Advent was characterized as a build-up to the big birthday party; the time when we start putting up the streamers and decorations….. And the final hymn was “Angels We Have Heard on High.” (Aren’t we jumping the gun here?)

  6. Ronald Avra says:

    A good selection to begin Advent; thanks for posting.