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Karen Dieleman, Religious Imaginaries: The Liturgical and Poetic Practices of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Adelaide Procter

Athens, Ohio University Press, 2013, 320p. ISBN 9780821420171
Mélody Enjoubault
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Karen Dieleman, Religious Imaginaries: The Liturgical and Poetic Practices of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Adelaide Procter. Athens, Ohio University Press, 2013, 320p. ISBN 9780821420171

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Mots-clés :

femmes, religion, poésie


women, religion, poetry
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1In Religious Imaginaries: The Liturgical and Poetic Practices of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Adelaide Procter, Karen Dieleman aims at exploring the import of Church practices in these three women poets’ religious imaginary and poetry. Focusing on three active church-going poets belonging to the three major branches of Victorian Christianity—respectively Congregationalism, Anglo-Catholicism, and revivalist Roman Catholicism—the author shows that distinctive poetic voices emerge from different religious practices in so far as these influence the poet’s understanding of her role, of the act of scriptural interpretation or of the cultural weight of religious poetry. Choosing these three poets because they identified themselves as Christian poets in an age of increasing doubt, Dieleman also indicates that her decision to exclusively analyse women poets was prompted by her will to enrich common assumptions about women’s religious poetry. She indeed refutes the idea that the faith of Victorian women hindered their creativity, or that the constitution of a distinctive religious stance was more importantly shaped by gender rather than their religious identity. Looking in detail at Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s, Christina Rossetti’s and Adelaide Procter’s religious poetic productions, she therefore reveals the distinct and innovative poetics they developed in response to their worship experiences, and suggests that their writings may lead to a reassessment of the value of religious practices themselves.

2In her introduction, Dieleman indicates that her study was deeply influenced by the works of Dennis Taylor, and many other studies underlining the intersections between the literary and the religious as well as the idea that Victorian Christianity was far from monologic. She however departs from the view of Victorian religion mainly as a cultural construct to consider that understanding Victorian women’s religious writing requires attention to their church affiliations. Contrary to recent studies focusing on how a religious writer attempts at revising institutional dogma, Dieleman claims that these three writers’ specific religious imaginaries were the result of their participation in Church worship in the first place: the effect of engaging in a specific kind of liturgy goes beyond mere influence to reach a generating dimension. The word “imaginary”, that the author takes from Charles Taylor (Modern Social Imaginaries) and James K. Smith (Desiring the Kingdom), therefore refers here to the poets’ way of interacting ‘with the world not strictly on the basis of principles or beliefs, not strictly as products of their material or ideological environments, but in a constant, reciprocal process of negotiation, conscious and unconscious, between cultural fields . . . and individual agency’ (7).

3Dieleman’s study is structured around six chapters which work in pairs: for each poet, each pair first gives a very detailed and informative background of their respective religious tradition and practice, and then develops the first chapter’s argument by examining the poet’s writing through the prism of their experience.

4The first two chapters are dedicated to Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her creation of a woman’s religious imaginary and poetic voice within Congregationalist liturgy throughout the years: to do so, Dieleman carefully analyses her juvenilia, her brief hymn-writing, her midcareer narratives ‘The Seraphim’ (1838), ‘The Virgin Mary to the Child Jesus’ (1838) and ‘A Drama in Exile’ (1844), and finally her late compositions ‘Aurora Leigh’ (1857) and ‘A Curse of a Nation’ (1860). By closely analysing this production, the author first demonstrates that Browning’s work reflects Congregationalism’s primacy of Scriptures as the source of divine truth, and its democratic approach thanks to the interpretative independence of the believer in front of the biblical text. This conception of shared knowledge explains why Browning favoured the figure of the poet-preacher over the Romantic poet-prophet. Aiming at a language that combines intellect and feeling to express religious Truth and Love, Browning goes beyond the gendered dichotomy of her time attributing the intellectual to men and the sentimental to women, leading Dieleman to conclude that a woman poet ‘must and can unite emotional strength with intellectual understanding; she can do so because poetic powers are not conferred from above in some pre-existent (male-figured) form but developed through participation in a dialogic community’ (99).

5The author dedicates the next two chapters to Christina Rossetti’s religious writing in Verses (1893), and more specifically to how the Anglican liturgy shapes her relationship to the world and how the three movements that fed her Anglo-Catholicism—Tractarianism, ecclesiology and ritualism—informed the notions and images that we find in her poetry. The author’s reflexion first revolves around how Rossetti’s writing analogizes a kind of worship that values sacrament as much as the word, leading to a poetry which considers uncertainty a gift, not a problem: contrary to the exegetic attitude of Congregationalism, Rossetti’s Anglicanism favours a posture of reception that registers divine mystery rather than uncovers divine meaning. Her proximity with high ecclesiological aesthetics leads the author to wonder how poetry as a verbal art is enabled by the visual and symbolic worship experience of high ecclesiology which does not only please the eye but also, and above all, ‘makes religious meaning by creating devotional space’ (125). Dieleman finally shows how a woman observing participant in a ritualist service enacted by men only might respond to its contradiction between the vision of community calling for spiritual equality and the imperfect actualization of this ideal: Rossetti’s writing shows a will to fill this gap by reconstituting an idealized worshipping community while still accommodating individuality rid of individualism.

6The study ends with Adelaide Procter’s work and with the influence of her Catholic worship on her poetic aesthetics and practice, and more specifically on the multidimensional aspect of her poetic voice: Procter considered that different modes of Catholic worship were compatible with a unified imaginary and reveals an attunement to contradictory attitudes like mass-inflected reserve as well as revivalist effusion, which is made clear in Legends and Lyrics, Series 1 (1858), Legends and Lyrics, Series 2 (1861), and A Chaplet of Verses (1862), regarded as Procter’s contribution to the Catholic literary revival. Her relationship to authority also illustrates the poet’s multifaceted stance: as a Catholic, Procter agreed with the principle of spiritual authority but did not look for the approval of religious authority. Likewise, she did not show a truly democratic attitude, but often adopted an ambivalent voice that is both idealizing and patronizing. The fact that she didn’t publish A Chaplet of Verses in a religious publishing house shows how she wished to assert her independence from established structures and reach people beyond her beliefs, while still inscribing her work within the Catholic faith.

7By shifting the emphasis from gender and religious discourse to liturgical practice, Dieleman not only broadens our perception of Victorian Christianity, she also provides the reader with a new reading framework for other religious Victorian poets. Her way of combining cultural and biographical elements as well as close readings of primary sources enables her to bring a renewed perspective on nineteenth-century religious practice, while still keeping her analysis accessible and clear by avoiding intricate vocabulary. Even though one can regret the mechanical structure of her work, the author manages to avoid mere juxtaposition by constantly drawing parallels and contrasts between the three poets in each study. The repetitions her outline entails may certainly seem unnecessary to some, but can also be seen as contributing to make her point clear for all kinds of readers, from scholars to non-specialists.

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Mélody Enjoubault, « Karen Dieleman, Religious Imaginaries: The Liturgical and Poetic Practices of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Adelaide Procter »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 80 Automne | 2014, mis en ligne le 20 décembre 2014, consulté le 05 mars 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Mélody Enjoubault

Université Paris-Sorbonne

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