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‘Thou Whole Burnt-Offering!’1 The Mystical Ecstasy in Christina Rossetti’s Poems

Bertrand Lentsch


Christina Rossetti has come to the wrong place: there is no answer. In order to while away the time, she will write poems which stage her one Passion for God, with whom she has fallen head over heels in love, more than with life itself, since she repulses men, whom she finds inadequate, in a Victorian society which yet allotted them pride of place, unwitting though it was of women, who were deemed redundant. These serial elegies chiselled by a bashful lover hence draw the graph of her desire to be possessed by a missing one, whose fullness she extols whilst dreading his potency. The horror of their ultimate encounter is lessened thereof, through the daily disclosures of her mystical climax, which is being dutifully registered as if it were a confession of powerlessness. However unassuming she then appears to be, such moments of great feeling are her delightful way of atoning for her sins.

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  • 1 Christina Rossetti,The Complete Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2001) 329, 28.
  • 2 William Fredeman ed., The P.R.B. Journal (Oxford: OUP, 1975) 28.
  • 3 Françoise Barret-Ducrocq, Pauvreté, charité et morale à Londres au XIXe siècle (Paris: PUF, 1991) 9 (...)

1Christina Rossetti’s faith (1830–94) is bewildering. She lived the life of a recluse, and turned down two proposals of marriage, on the grounds of her High Anglicanism and her poor health. One from the then painter of some promise, James Collinson, in 1848, who was a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which her brother, Dante Gabriel, had founded in the same year. His resolve was ‘that the devil being the only being purely reasoning and analytic, and therefore is the devil; and he would have every man hold to the faith he is born in, as, if he attempts to get beyond its bounds, he will be far more likely to be a rebel than a seeker after truth, and should not attempt to pull down without having something to build anew.’2 The other from Charles Cayley, a gentle scholar who translated Aeschylus, Homer, Dante, and Petrarch. From the age of 14, she was riddled with temper tantrums and bouts of depression, and in 1893, she was diagnosed with Graves’s disease, which left her with a goiter, protruding eyes, a thickening of the skin and an acute sense of tiredness, all an outcome of a possibly genetic family preponderance. As the 1851 census also publicly made apparent, women were not enfranchised yet: a 4% imbalance in gender distribution in their favour compelled 400,000 of them to remain spinsters, so that many ‘redundant women’ were considered part and parcel of ‘The Great Social Evil’, which the ‘Contagious Diseases Acts’ of 1864 tried to bring back to the straight and narrow, by forcibly having them examined for venereal illnesses. Moral reform movements meanwhile endeavoured to close down brothels, and drove prostitutes on the streets of Whitechapel in London, in the eighties.3 In the face of the sheer scale of that social disaster, the double standard of female identity, as purity in manners and perfect homemaking against the corruption of the city, turned out to be the rule of thumb, given to set them loose, or remand them in sanctimonious custody.

  • 4 Rossetti, 884-5.

2Christina Rossetti writing herself woman is thus apparently nothing to write home about. Her dual commitment is to versified cautionary nursery tales or fervent sacramental poetry, which is so burning in intent and polished in diction, that on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s death (1806–61), she was hailed as her natural successor as ‘female laureate’. Her first published poem ‘Goblin Market’ (1862) is a motley crew of ‘all very slim agile figures in a close-fitting garb of blue; their faces, hands, and feet are sometimes human, sometimes brute-like but of a scarcely definable type.’4 ‘The Prince’s Progress’ (1866) is the jaundiced rehash of the Sleeping Beauty, with the hitch that the Prince arrived too late. Such a mishap amounted to her allegorically beating her breast about the demise of human love, in a skewed, Bunyanesque Pilgrim’s Progress (1684), (481–90):

Too late for love, too late for joy,
          Too late, too late!
You loitered on the road too long,
          You trifled at the gate:
The enchanted dove upon her branch
          Died without a mate;
The enchanted princess in her tower
          Slept, died, behind the grate;
Her heart was starving all this while
          You made it wait.

3Her ageing made her dedicate a string of soft-spoken lines to Charles Cayley’s brother’s baby son, Sing-song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872). It proved her having half a mind to jest whilst being earnest, ‘Hear what the mournful linnets say’ (230–1). Each poem was fraught with home truths, that are to be construed as the bane of grandiloquence. ‘A Pageant’ (1881) then came, in the same glib, casual, even-tempered meditative streak, but with a one-off hymn or psalm to God. The booklet was all suffused and sweet-scented with trust in His redeeming power from the fatigue of life’s wear and tear. No matter how orthodox, the self-professed tedium vitae finally rings a bell and makes one guess at a diagnosis of dysthymia, a soul-pervading despondency, which might loom large above her poetic delivery. It infects the reader with a sense of perennial woe and with a hope for occasional exhilaration. Her Verses (1893) finally showed what mettle she was made of. Her longing for annulment, pangs of remorse at her iniquity, shame of being alive, and hope for a better world, are aired in a luminous valedictory oration, whose humbleness is not unlike George Herbert’s meekness, which was of a piece with his fear of God, in The Temple (1633). Her weariness of life thus stops being mere wishful thinking, since people in glass houses should not throw stones, but one should at least acknowledge her look of entreaty to her maker and prime mover, whom she submissively, self-deprecatingly calls and celebrates, as a token of her love for the divine, which can only be above par with stringent mundane considerations.

4Ill at ease and writhing though she be, she is nevertheless embraced and also inherent in her times, when uniformitarianism in the philosophy of science started assuming that the present was the key to the past, as natural processes were stable, in contradistinction to catastrophism, which stated that the surface features of the Earth had begun suddenly in the past, by geological alterations which were radically other than those which would today occur. In his Principles of Geology (1830–3), Charles Lyell (1797–1875) opposed the creationist view, which attributes the origin of matter and species to a particular aetiology:

  • 5 S. J. Gould, Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001) 108-9.

In an early stage of advancement, when a great number of natural appearances are unintelligible, an eclipse, an earthquake, a flood, or the approach of a comet, with many other occurrences afterwards found to belong to the regular course of events, are regarded as prodigies. The same delusion prevails as to moral phenomena, and many of these are ascribed to the intervention of demons, ghosts, witches, and other immaterial and supernatural agents. By degrees, many of the enigmas of the moral and physical worlds are explained, and, instead of being due to extrinsic and irregular causes, they are found to depend on fixed and invariable laws.5

5Such a negation of divine interference could but perplex the poetess, the more so as it came after the geologist James Hutton (1726–97) was the first to take into account the effect of erosion and the orogenetic forces, on the formation of the planet, in the Theory of the Earth (1788):

  • 6 Gould, 64-5.

Time, which measures every thing in our idea, and is often deficient to our schemes, is to nature endless and as nothing. (p. 215)
If the succession of worlds is established in the system of nature, it is vain to look for anything higher in the origin of the earth. The result, therefore, of our present inquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning,—no prospect of an end.6

6They exerted a strong influence on Charles Robert Darwin (1809–82), who supplied scientific evidence that all species had evolved by natural selection. He established evolution among the ‘incipient species’ that were converted into ‘distinct species’, as the result of an inevitable ‘struggle for life’, in the third chapter of the ‘one long argument’ that constitutes his seminal work, On the Origin of Species (1859):

  • 7 From So Simple a Beginning, The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin, Ed. E.O. Wilson (New York: Nort (...)

Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring. The offspring, also will thus have a better chance of surviving, for, of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive. I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection.7

  • 8 John Milton, The Major Works (Oxford: OUP, 1991) 356, I, 26.

7Nothing could disturb Christina Rossetti more than that debate, which was rife in the 18th and 19th centuries, between the aforementioned scientific theory and the Dogmatic theology which she had no doubt about. It was the tenet traditionally taught by the Church, but it seemed hard to reconcile with God’s supposedly benevolent design. John Milton already wanted to ‘justify the ways of God to men’, in ‘English heroic verse without rhyme’, in Paradise Lost (1667).8 She, for one, found no rest whatsoever, until she outlined and marvelled and grieved at an agonizing intercourse, which boggled her mind and induced her to be on pins and needles, no obfuscation ever to be probed therein, but the satiation one experiences after turmoil. Poetry-writing thus became the dramatization of a glimpse of restored order, in a society which expelled or secluded women like lambs to the slaughter, for alleged shortcomings, which she felt in the flesh and mind, and begged to differ from, by seeing her sacrifice through, as a surrender to God’s will, in defiance of men’s whims. This study is therefore an attempt at mapping the pathos of a self-styled, sacrificial victim’s mental agony, discernibly throbbing with religious fervour, whereas it is actually invigorated by the mystical ecstasy of a forlorn soul, enacting the Passion of Christ, as is akin to the fourteenth century Danse Macabre, personifying death guiding a row of figures from all walks of life to the grave. She intoned a lifelong swansong giving vent to her vituperation of here below, and her encomium of the hereafter. She thereby deemed the hic et nunc of adulthood was a harrowing walk through the maze of the wilderness, and she made away with it, while she experienced that the fantasy world of childhood was an arid endeavour to silence the call of the wild, and she now and then, gave it a say: unknown, unmissed, hers is the voice of denial rather than subservience.

1 The Dolorous way Traced With the Feet of our Saviour

8Christina Rossetti’s affliction is first to be sensed in her unremitting adumbration of the contents of a void. Hers is a good deal of trial and error, of groping around for the missing link that might set aright the sum and substance of a reality in disarray, instead of the scurrilous, haughty, assuming cheek dictating the secularization of the Church of England, which had just been legislated about, by the Whig government of Sir Charles Grey (1764–1845), in 1832. Reverend John Keble attacked the proposal of reducing by ten the number of Irish bishoprics in the Church of Ireland, as ‘National Apostasy’ in his Assize Sermon, in Oxford, in 1833, while the 1828 curate of Saint Mary’s, in the immediate vicinity, John Henry Newman (1801–90), sought to prove that the Church of England was a straight offshoot of the Holy Seal, in his ninety Tracts for the Times (1833–41). The Branch Theory evinced that Anglicanism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism were the indissoluble triad constituting the Church: hence the insistence of the Oxford Movement (1833–45) on the unifying function of the Holy Supper, as the Eucharist was the transubstantiation of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The Tractarians, along with Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800–82), Regius Professor of Hebrew at Christ Church, upheld the complementary doctrines of the Apostolic Succession and of the Book of Common Prayer as a rule of faith, against any Protestant persuasion. Rossetti’s quest is likewise that of the ontology underlying her spiritual experience. It tells her apart from her brother’s interest in sensuality, by inducing her to ground her transcendental fascination for Heaven into an iterative negation of matter, which she deems to be a ‘trap’ (‘Autumn’, 138, 38). She is thence made to feel on the look-out for ‘a footstep coming’ (‘The Ghost’s Petition’, 139, 1, 4), whilst blaming the missing one for fickleness, ‘Is it thus that you keep your word?’ (54) or bemoaning her loneliness in ‘L.E.L.’, which she composed in 1859, after E.B. Browning’s ‘L.E.L.’s Last Question’ (1844) about Letitia Elizabeth Landon (1802–39), (1–7):

Down I laugh, I sport and jest with all:
     But in my solitary room above
I turn my face in silence to the wall;
     My heart is breaking for a little love.
          Tho’ winter frosts are done,
          And birds pair every one,
And leaves peep out, for springtide is begun.

  • 9 Tertullien, Apologeticum (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1961) 73.

9The rift in her personality, which was the result of her extreme shyness, the other thoroughgoing predicament she daily had to combat, would make her go where angels fear to tread. She bridled at the suggestion that she might be a killjoy, whose only solace were in the Scriptures, just as Hezekiah, warned by the prophet Amos of his impending doom, ‘turned his face to the wall, and prayed unto the Lord’ (2 Kings 20: 2). The poet repeatedly experienced that the advent of spring was a reminder that everything is meaningless. She therefore found her favourite reference in the Bible, in Ecclesiastes 1: 2 Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas, (‘A vain Shadow’, 468; ‘I see that all things come to an end’, 519; ‘Vanity of Vanities’, 523). Such was her keepsake of the transience of life, the fatuousness of pleasure, and the inexorability of death. All her stance then developed into a one-act play, exhibiting the steadfastness of one pitted against the torments of corporeal deficiency. She thereby attracted notice to her indomitable moral resolution. Some have ascribed it to escapism whereas it is the assuredness of the uncluttered actor, who is aware that her life is nothing but the show of a ‘Memento Mori’ (319). It is reminiscent of the slave, standing behind the general on parade through the streets of Rome, during his victory celebration also called a triumph, who repeated Respice post te! Hominem te memento! as mentioned by Septimus Florens Tertullianus (c. 155-c. 225) in Apologeticum (197), (33, 4),9 to warn the hero that this heyday of his was but prior to his death knell. Her contempt and renunciation of desire is then the more striking as it is definitive, (‘Sœur Louise de la Miséricorde’ 1674, 1–5):

I have desired, and I have been desired;
     But now the days are over of desire,
     Now dust and dying embers mock my fire;
Where is the hire for which my life was hired?
Oh vanity of vanities, desire!

  • 10 Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, II (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1976) 15.

10Her discomfort is in actual fact the outcome of a long-standing tradition, backing the spiritual dismissal of women, even on religious grounds. She is, likely as not, recanting both sacred and secular ideals of women. If ever a trace of Pre-Raphaelite medievalism were to be surmised in her anguished outlook on the legitimacy of womanhood, (‘Men work and think, but women feel;/And so (for I’m a woman, I)/And so I should be glad to die,’ 328, 5–7), one might as well heed that the most compelling embodiment, which an overrating of maidenhood implied in the Middle Ages, was the Virgin Mary. As a symbol and as the bride of Christ (sponsa Christi), Mary drew attention in the eleventh century. This culminated in Bernard of Clairvaux’ sermons on the Song of Songs: ‘The Bridegroom knows the delights with which the Holy Spirit charms the one he loves, the inspirations with which he reanimates her affections, the perfumes that enhance her loveliness. Let her be as a fountain entirely his own, unshared by any stranger, untouched by unworthy lips’: for she is ‘a garden enclosed, a sealed fountain, though rivulets flow from it into the streets.’10 The doctrine of Immaculate Conception, namely her own inception free from sexuality, hence from the original sin, including painful birth, was later denied in England by Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109), and upheld by Duns Scotus (c. 1266–1308). Her image was ultimately turned into a matter of dispute, which reflected the paradoxical, ambivalent and contradictory feelings that prevailed about marriage and consummation. And although a new dignity was conferred on them in the twelfth century, Eve was persistently figured as a secondary and derivative creation. Her being, by a quirk of fate, the daughter of her husband Adam, who like an ungrateful child or a disobedient wife, had her sin visited upon his head, and he made to suffer the loss of the Garden of Eden, led her to being depicted within a hortus conclusus, a closed garden that represented both her virginity and her desirability, as an inaccessible lay sexual, connubial object of affection. By also being the mother of Christ, she acquired an ambiguous connotational function, which made her become symbolically contradictory. It raised people’s complex feelings about sexuality and wedlock. In ‘The Annunciation’ (Madrid: The Prado, 1435), by Fra Angelico (1395–1455), a strict connection is established between the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and man’s redemption through Christ, who had been born of a spotless virgin. Humble-mindedly sitting under a portico, also to symbolize the stoic philosophy taught under a porch in Athens, Mary is listening to an angel, with close at hand, a lush garden from which Adam and Eve moodily slink away, right when a beam of light penetrates the picture from above, to notify her pregnancy, through the angel’s words, by being the aim of God’s intent which reaches her. Hence, the common conception of her virginal insemination as a sunbeam penetrating glass without breaking it. Far from gaining satisfaction from it, Christina Rossetti complies with her fate as a mere recipient, but also awaits the day of her physical and mental liberation from suchlike equivocalness and uncertainty, (‘An “Immurata” Sister’, 328, 17–28):

Why should I seek and never find
     That something which I had not had?
     Fair and unutterably sad
The world hath sought time out of mind;
The world hath sought and I have sought,—
     Ah, empty world and empty I!
     For we have spent our strength for nought,
And soon it will be time to die.
Sparks fly upward toward their fount of fire,
     Kindling, flashing, hovering:—
Kindle, flash, my soul; mount higher and higher,
     Thou whole burnt-offering!

  • 11 Rossetti, 294.

11‘Despised and Rejected’ (172): like Sappho, the 7th-6th c. B.C. poetess, who turned down Alcaeus’ love and caused an uproar by making no secret of her communing with young ladies in the Ode to Aphrodite, which she composed in Sapphic verse form, that came to being fashionable among minstrels and scholars throughout the Middle Ages, Rossetti felt from deep inside that she was not allowed a voice in the male-centered Victorian era. On that account, she was but bound to run against the grain. She therefore occupied her time in writing, thereby defaming the loss of earthly love, as someone resigned to her fate. And she became a member of the ‘bevy of unnamed ladies ‘donne innominate’, sung by a school of less conspicuous poets’ than Beatrice, immortalized by ‘altissimo poeta. . .cotanto amante’, or Laura, who ‘have alike paid the exceptional penalty of exceptional honour, and have come down to us resplendent with charms, but (at least to my apprehension) scant of attractiveness.’11 Her demotic coign of vantage is thus all the more hieratic. However an admirer of Dante (Durante Alighieri: 1265–1321), whom she quotes along with Petrarch (Francesco di ser Petracco: 1304–74), in the epigraphs to ‘Monna Innominata, A Sonnet of Sonnets’, as a reference to the Divine Comedy (1306–21) or the Canzoniere (1335), those fourteen poems, in fourteen lines, in iambic decasyllables, which are reminiscent of E.B. Browning’s ‘Portuguese Sonnets’ (1850), jingle with the word ‘love’, which is repeated 58 times. They testify to a gradation from its conventional equation with the world, ‘O love, my world is you.’ (1, 8) when referring to Charles Cayley, to its nihilistic dismissal as ineffectual, ‘Silence of love that cannot sing again.’ (14, 14), while the divine capital ‘L’ gradually supersedes the human lower case (8, 13; 14). The apotheosis of manly debasement has yet already been reached in sonnet 6, (9–14):

Yet while I love God the most, I deem
     That I can never love you overmuch;
          I love Him more, so let me love you too;
     Yea, as I apprehend it, love is such
I cannot love you if I love Him,
     I cannot love Him if I love not you.

12Unlike John Donne’s fleshly threshold of pain and recurring calls to be castigated thereof, in the Holy Sonnets (1633–5), Rossetti’s confidence in her creator is unsoiled by carnal desire. Her longing is fragrant with the sense that her body has been muted by the disease secretly gnawing at her. She also feels stifled by the tradition of serfdom which she complies with, when paying lip service to the customary marital status, no matter how insufficient she finds it: ‘Since woman is the helpmeet made for man’ (5–14), a wary assertion she pretends to be hers, after the Vulgate ‘And the Lord God said: it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him’ (Gen. 2: 18). This, as a matter of course, attracts notice to her pining for an amorous relationship, which can only be fulfilled in a spiritual way. It lays down the foundations of her identity, instead of restricting her to the despicable traditional position of an auxiliary. Her incipient feminism is in the comparison of male dominance to another patriarchal authority, which she turns to because it is uplifting, and not stultifying, in its ridding her from the anguish of her dispossession and mental dissociation. Her love is therefore aimed at a glorious absentee whose trace she keeps looking for, rather than the visible, present stigma which she repeatedly endeavours to erase.

2 Qui cantat, bis orat. (Saint Augustine, Sermons 336.)

  • 12 Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea (London: Kegan Paul, 1963) 18.

13Rossetti’s everyday life is punctuated with innumerable poems which, in keeping with Augustine of Hippo’s precept (354–430)—’he who sings, prays twice’—she seems to be reciting like prayers. They are thereafter collected in a diary, saying her rosary of flights of oratory and beseeching appeals to her creator, to atone for her singsong, haunting shortcomings as a mean, inadequate human being, doing her utmost to blot out her original sin of existing. Hers is Arthur Schopenhauer’s pessimism (1788–1860), another inconvenience of being born in a Godless world, to gaze at an unreliable reality: ‘The whole world of objects is and remains idea, and therefore wholly and for ever determined by the subject; that is to say, it has transcendental ideality. But it is not therefore illusion or mere appearance; it presents itself as that which it is, idea, and indeed as a series of ideas of which the common bond is the principle of sufficient reason.’12 The therapy to that nauseating, spurious existence, which she compels herself to go through, is not the cynicism of materialism or the illusion of sensuousness, but a daily dirge on emptiness, which she equates with lack and hollowness. And she is as garrulous as the Virgin Mary was silent, for having carried the Saviour from womb to tomb; unlike her, aptly-named Christina, who, contrariwise, believes that she is ironically and inexorably virginal, and untouched by the joys of divine pregnancy. Her distress is modulated and warbled in the only makeshift, which she now and then, as regularly as possible, deems she is capable of. Composing poems is for her an exoneration for inappropriate demeanour, which makes her turn her face to the wall (‘L.E.L.’, 147, 3), and assert that she is ‘Long Barren’ (1856, 3–5: ‘Tho I till now be barren, now at length,/Lord, give me strength/To bring forth fruit to Thee.’), ‘A Bruised Reed Shall He not Break.’ (61). Her sole remaining aim down under is to chant a ‘Martyrs Song’ (176), or ‘A Dirge [Why were you born when the snow was falling]’ (189). She would He came in her at last, though. Hence, her frequent exhilaration at her intimation for Him to come (‘He cannot deny Himself’, 405, 11–20), no matter how sentient and aware of His avoidance and abstinence she keeps being. As a matter of fact, in her ‘hope and passionate craving of desire,’ (390, 2), there is no mixture whatsoever between eros, human love, and agape, a ‘love-feast’ held by the early Christians in connection with the Lord’s Supper, (‘Epiphany’, 425, 11–15):

‘Lord Babe, despite Thy youth
I hold Thee of a truth
Both Good and Great:
But Wherefore dost Thou keep so mean a state,
Low-lying desolate?’

  • 13 Henri Suhamy, Les Figures de Style (Paris: PUF, 1981) 91.

14Her compunction is obvious and nothing daunted, she keeps putting questions to Him, related to His whereabouts and His purpose and her serviceability and the uses of the world. These are all the visible traces of her brief span, her alleged lack of commitment, her fickleness, and her blemishes, which she hopes they were short-lived, as her vision is set on the ephemeral, the better to enhance the eternal, in her search for the ‘Light of Light.’ (396). Christ our All in All (1893, 396–419) is shaped by gradation, till she sets to work the figure of auxesis (arrangement instancing increasing force), as opposed to the meiosis (a belittling), which is congenial with human nature. She thus substantiates an idiosyncratic variety of the hypotyposis (vivid description), which is more specifically an expolitio,13 by grounding it in repetition, which is the hallmark of her poetic inspiration, (397, 1–6):

Contempt and pangs and haunting fears
     Too late for hope, too late for ease,
          Too late for rising from the dead;
     Too late, too late to bend my knees,
          Or bow my head,
Or weep, or ask for tears.

  • 14 Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems and Prose (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1985) 174.
  • 15 Plato, Cratylus (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1963) 18-9.
  • 16 Plato, The Republic (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1953) 244-5.

15The passage of time here becomes less important than her marking out the minutes, that are scattered away and wasted, for not having taken one’s sinfulness into account. Such is a postlapsarian prostration indeed, but also the praise she showers on the periodic recurrence of the mellifluous, incantatory declamation worthy of her maker. She is no follower of the alliterative sprung rhythm practised by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89), who yet admired her, (‘but for pathos and pure beauty of art I do not think he [i.e. Dante Gabriel] is her equal: in fact the simple beauty of her work cannot be matched’).14 She uses many if not all the resources proving regularity instead, as she would in all likelihood frown at the airs and graces of a supercilious, sudden revelation from above. She holds that she is someone unworthy of God’s word of mouth. So, she is a firm adherent, upholder and practitioner, of a sonorous and verbal agreement, which is a case in point of the harmonious sound produced by the Spheres. They were the concentric, translucent hollow globes dreamed of by late Middle Age astronomers, which revolved round the earth and carried the several heavenly bodies, in other words, the moon, the sun, the planets, and the fixed stars. That system led Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) to vindicate a pre-established harmony, in his Monadology (1714), between the divine emanations or monads, which were mirrors of the whole universe addressing one another, though no direct communication exists among them. Their actions therefore corresponded in tune, just like mind and matter would fit in with each other, even before their creation. Plato (428–347 BC) already maintained that he trusted a straightforward connection betwixt content and form: ‘is not naming also a kind of action, if speaking is a kind of action concerned with things?’ (Cratylus, 387-c).15 He later claimed ‘that the song is composed of three things, the words, the tune, and the rhythm’ (The Republic, 398-d).16 This was a variety of the supreme principle, which Heraclites (c. 576–480 BC) described as a Fire, since everything is but a metamorphosis of a unique and unlimited creation, whose aim is a return to the primal igneous situation. Oneness actually became multiple thereof, and the same turned other, in a never-ending movement. Christina repeatedly believes it to be a scheme of ascent, or a trope of amplification,. . .or ‘Sursum Corda’ (519, 1–9). This title refers to the Golden Rope that Zeus, the ‘Supreme moderator’, drew from heaven, to bind the gods, men and the universe. Homer (ninth century BC) depicted it in the Iliad (VIII, 18–27), to underline the divine origin of the mind, which ‘forms and suffuses all below with life . . . from the Supreme God to the bottom-most dregs of the universe’:

‘Lift up your hearts.’ ‘We lift them up.’ Ah me!
I cannot, Lord, lift up my heart to Thee:
Stoop, lift it up, that where Thou art I too may be.
‘Give me thy heart.’ I would not say thee nay,
But have no power to keep or give away
My heart: stoop, Lord, and take it to Thyself today.
Stoop, Lord, as once before, now once anew
Stoop, Lord, and hearken, hearken, Lord, and do,
And take my will, and take my heart, and take me too.

16The breathless, panting, heaving desire, will and pleasure, of a woman experiencing withdrawal symptoms, is here to be felt and heard, in the halting punctuation and brief orders of invocation, and the staccato emphasis, the beats and off-beats on the short syllables, building up a paeonic rhythm. Pentameters alternate with the rarer alexandrine, in an accentual-syllabic verse drama, rhyming aaa bbb ccc. . . . It is full of her violent, demanding want of the Supreme Being. Man is then well nigh discarded, whilst God is looked up to.

3 Less is More

  • 17 Burrow J.A. ed., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972) 49-50.
  • 18 George Eliot, Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life (Oxford: OUP, 1986) 4.

17In her heart of hearts, Christina Rossetti is convinced that she is a humble obedient of her Lord, and wants to prove it, day after day, by writing; the Lord of Hosts whose heavenly rule of melodious concord she abides by, so as the better to extol His attractions and radiance. She is a woman in love and all her art of speaking is sometimes the ‘gay’ Lady of Bertilak de Hautdesert’s amorous, caressing alluring of Sir Gawain17 when ‘loflyest to beholde’ (III,33), ‘Wyth chynne and cheke ful swete,/Boe quit and red in blande,/Ful lufly con ho lete/Wyth lyppez smal la3ande: with art/Sweetly does she speak/and kindling glances dart,/Blent white and red on cheek/And laughing lips apart.’ (1203–1207), she made her way into his room, to wish him ‘God moroun’, while sitting next to him on his bed, thus fusing friendship, amicitia, with love, amor, for a man for all seasons whose gentilesse she wanted to lay hands on, whilst Christina Rossetti is all chaste and unassuming, though she displays the same verbal zeal. She is, no ifs or buts, a daughter of God who depends and hangs upon Him, and in no way Mary Ann Evans’s (1819–80) would-be independent Dorothea, ‘a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing,’18 recognizing her failure as being inevitably present, like death, a destruction and frustration of energy:

  • 19 Eliot, 433.

Dorothea had gathered emotion as she went on, and had forgotten everything except the relief of pouring forth her feelings, unchecked: an experience once habitual with her, but hardly ever present since her marriage, which had been a perpetual struggle of energy with fear. For the moment, Will’s admiration was accompanied with a chilling sense of emotiveness. A man is seldom ashamed of feeling that he cannot love a woman so well when he sees a certain greatness in her: nature having intended greatness for men. But nature has sometimes made sad oversights in carrying out her intention; as in the case of good Mr Brooke, whose masculine consciousness was at this moment in rather a stammering condition under the eloquence of his niece19

  • 20 Eliot, 435.
  • 21 Virginia Woolf, The Second Common Reader (New York: Harcourt, 1986) 239.
  • 22 Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution (London: Fontana Press, 1993) 249.

18Yet Christina for one, did not choose to write under a male pen-name and did not make up her mind to marry lacklustre, ninny Ladislaw or the handsome Dr Lydgate either, since ‘by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil—widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.’20 She is one that liberal Virginia Woolf would later equivocally admire in her essay, ‘I am Christina Rossetti’, as she found her disconcerting in her pledge never to stray from that ‘possession’: ‘but in reality she dwelt in some curious region where the spirit strives towards an unseen God—in her case, a dark God, a harsh God—a God who decreed that all the pleasures of the world were hateful to Him.’21 She is sometimes frowned upon, for being a champion of Victorian morality and Tennysonian mellow semantic and sonorous inlaid work, crying woe on contemporaneous society, cursing like John Ruskin (1819–1900) all traces of pagan classicism in the stones of Venice, living faithfully a hidden life and then resting in an unvisited tomb. An anchorite, whose ethical redemption lay in her enforced observance of the proprieties that humanize and civilize relations, in a community where class was an indubitable fact of life, who eulogized the moral sanctity of women and attacked, Dickens-like in Hard Times, ‘mathematical’ utilitarianism. The Victorian era was actually an intense struggle between some who believed that reason, science and a liberal sensitivity offered mankind the way to progress, and others who muttered that conversely, the genuine conservative resisted unnecessary changes and suffered necessary ones; no pain, no gain. Walter Bagehot (1826–77) claimed that Britain exhibited ‘the two sides of the moon’, the double nature of man, the dual aspect of reality: ‘In fact the mass of the English people yield a deference rather to something else than to their rulers. They defer to what we may call the theatrical show of society. A certain state passes before them; a certain pomp of great men; a certain spectacle of beautiful women is displayed; a wonderful sense of wealth and enjoyment is displayed, and they are coerced by it.’22 For him, British history since Magna Carta (1215) had been that of political tradition grasping and adapting liberal values to improve the condition of the people. Christina Rossetti’s vocal music and lyric verse is therefore rather of the moonlight than of a sunshine, but her lifelong forbearance is stunning, so different, hence so appealing, since she is not Quixotic, striving with lofty enthusiasm for visionary ideals, but concurred with Diogenes, by showing her contempt for the amenities of life, by living in a tub, at the risk, like Cain, of confessing in a whisper, once in a while, ‘unto the Lord, My punishment is greater than I can bear’ (Genesis, 4: 13).

19She is indeed clamouring her denial but in the well-adjusted, high-fidelity combination and condensing of the tropes of pathos and amplification. Her heartache and nostalgia for a lost Paradise is real, essential, but it is disclosed and descanted in the demure and orderly apostrophe of her aganectesis (deep indignation) or deesis (vehement desire, for God’s sake), (‘Worship God’, 1–8):

Lord, if Thy word had been ‘Worship Me not,
     For I than thou am holier: draw not near:’
     We had besieged Thy Face with prayer and tear
And manifold abasement in our lot,
Our crooked ground, our thorned and thistled plot;
     Envious of flawless Angels in their Sphere,
     Envious of brutes, and envious of the more
Unliving and undying unbegot.

20Her identification with Eve dismissed from the Garden of Eden, and henceforth treading the ground cursed by God (Gen. 3: 18), is here the efficient cause which sets her roaming until the advent of Armageddon. A straggling that is long enough to synchoretically (a purely hypothetical concession) bemoan her sin and ensuing fate, so that this dramatic monologue is tinged with the ironic ecphonesis (emotional exclamation), addressed to her creator by a sinner who is full of negativity. She would well nigh have it that she is superior to Him (2), while the following description is compounded of the congeries (piling up words of differing meaning, 3) and the synonymia (amplifying synonyms, 5) of her climactic realization, better late than never, that she is now fully aware of her worthlessness, as it were better she had not been begotten (8).


  • 23 Fredeman, 107.

21Christina Rossetti’s strangeness is that she is paradoxical in her being keen on non-existence. For all her desire, craving, even weakness for death, she is nonetheless alive. She cannot then but wait. Her gasping for dissolution is beyond imagination and its powers. She keeps harping on the necessary sacrifice of herself, to gain the endless duration of a climax which she is fantasizing about, with the best of lovers. As such, she is at times more mystical than the ebullient if not querulous Pre-Raphaelites, and more pietistic too. They were vague and undogmatic in their doctrine, self-serving indeed, but also to all purposes: 1) express genuine ideas; 2) study Nature; 3) prefer the heartfelt and discard what is learned by rote; 4) produce good pictures. They therefore grew enthusiastic about medieval culture and the painters of the Quattrocento, before Raphael (1483–1520).23 Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833–98) admired Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506) and Michelangelo (1475–1564). So, he produced decorative works, which are suffused with more sentiment than feeling, as they are stamped by linear rhythms and sinuous shapes. When he painted the ‘Golden Stairs’ (London: Tate Gallery, 1876–80), he actually represented English women belonging to the Victorian aristocracy (his daughter, Margaret; the actress, Edith Gellibrandt; Laura Littleton and Mary Morris), standing on a curvilinear staircase, whose daring architecture sets off the curvaceous, diaphanous and mildly titillating, draped feminine bodies. Christina Rossetti’s longing for her maker is of a more essential hankering. It is more breathtaking, more aching and literally baffling, since it is, all the same, put in the coy, soft-hued fervour of her declaration of love. It is truly ‘obsessive’, as Virginia Woolf did not fail to notice, but the target of the poetess’s feeling may not be as scary as the novelist would have it: He is just not in, and Christina raises the question of our very legitimacy, having at once, come what may, dispatched our utility, far and wide, and our self-conscious worth too. Her poetry is the voicing and rephrasing of Jesus’ cry about the ninth hour: ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ (St Matt. 27: 46), ‘Wilt Thou look upon, wilt Thou see/Thy perishing me?’ (‘Love is Strong as Death’, 372, 5–6).

22A disconsolate and downhearted poetess, Christina acutely felt and expressed the loathsomeness of her very existence in this place which she often called a God-forsaken one, as Thomas Hardy (1840–1928) would, when he came to consider Nature’s cruel beauty in Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891). Her theology was none other than the encapsulation of a debate which loomed large in the very definition of the principle of creationism: the theory that God immediately creates a soul for every human being born. It ran counter to traducianism, the hereditary transmission of the soul of a child, like his body. Such was Augustine’s disconcerting doctrine of Original Sin, according to which, God had foreseen all the choices every one would ever make. It was His will to save all men, not by destroying each one’s free will, but by preserving it, since the elect would have the full power to be damned and the reprobate, that of being saved:

  • 24 St Augustine's Confessions, William Watts tr. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989) 424-5.

Thus came I to understand (myself affording me the experiment) what I had sometimes read: how the flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh. I myself was in both; yet of the two, in that rather which I approved of in myself, than in that which I disallowed. For in this, I was now no more; because much of it I suffered rather against my will, than did it with my will. And yet was custom now by mine own assistance become more sturdy against me, even because I was come willingly, whither I would not have come.24

23Hence Christina Rossetti’s everyday pledge to do her utmost to thank her creator for putting her in a position to taste, and pretend she relishes her expectation of Him, Ama, et fac quod vis (‘love and do what you will’, St Augustine, Contra Julianum), till her last poem, which is peaceful at long last, (‘Sleeping at last’, 1893–4, 1896, 1–4),

Sleeping at last, the trouble & tumult over,
Sleeping at last, the struggle & horror past,
Cold & white out of sight of friend & of lover
Sleeping at last.

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Bagehot, Walter. The English Constitution. 1867. London: Fontana Press, 1993.

Barret-Ducrocq, Françoise. Pauvreté, charité et morale à Londres au xixe siècle. Paris: PUF, 1991.

Burrow, J. A., ed. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972.

Clairvaux, Bernard of. On the Song of Songs. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1976.

Eliot, George. Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life. 1871. Oxford: OUP, 1986.

Fredeman, William, ed. The P.R.B. Journal. Oxford: OUP, 1975.

Gould, S. J. Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Poems and Prose. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1985.

Milton, John. The Major Works. Ed. S. Orgel and J. Goldberg. Oxford: OUP, 1991.

Plato, Cratylus. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1963.

Plato, The Republic. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1953.

Rossetti, Christina. The Complete Poems. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2001.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Idea. 1859. Tr. R.B. Haldane and J. Kemp. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1963.

Suhamy, Henri. Les Figures de Style. Paris: PUF, 1981.

Tertullien. Apologeticum. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1961.

Wilson, E. O. ed. From so Simple a Beginning, The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin. New York: Norton, 2006.

Watts, William tr. St Augustine’s confessions. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989.

Woolf, Virginia. The Second Common Reader. 1932. New York: Harcourt, 1986.

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1 Christina Rossetti,The Complete Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2001) 329, 28.

2 William Fredeman ed., The P.R.B. Journal (Oxford: OUP, 1975) 28.

3 Françoise Barret-Ducrocq, Pauvreté, charité et morale à Londres au XIXe siècle (Paris: PUF, 1991) 91.

4 Rossetti, 884-5.

5 S. J. Gould, Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001) 108-9.

6 Gould, 64-5.

7 From So Simple a Beginning, The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin, Ed. E.O. Wilson (New York: Norton, 2006) 489.

8 John Milton, The Major Works (Oxford: OUP, 1991) 356, I, 26.

9 Tertullien, Apologeticum (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1961) 73.

10 Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, II (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1976) 15.

11 Rossetti, 294.

12 Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea (London: Kegan Paul, 1963) 18.

13 Henri Suhamy, Les Figures de Style (Paris: PUF, 1981) 91.

14 Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems and Prose (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1985) 174.

15 Plato, Cratylus (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1963) 18-9.

16 Plato, The Republic (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1953) 244-5.

17 Burrow J.A. ed., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972) 49-50.

18 George Eliot, Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life (Oxford: OUP, 1986) 4.

19 Eliot, 433.

20 Eliot, 435.

21 Virginia Woolf, The Second Common Reader (New York: Harcourt, 1986) 239.

22 Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution (London: Fontana Press, 1993) 249.

23 Fredeman, 107.

24 St Augustine's Confessions, William Watts tr. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989) 424-5.

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Bertrand Lentsch, « ‘Thou Whole Burnt-Offering!’ The Mystical Ecstasy in Christina Rossetti’s Poems »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 69 | 2009, mis en ligne le 04 juillet 2019, consulté le 25 juillet 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Bertrand Lentsch

Lycée Clémenceau, Nantes.
LENTSCH Bertrand est professeur agrégé d'anglais au lycée Clemenceau de Nantes. Il a soutenu en 1996, une thèse, intitulée La Création Poétique chez John Ashbery : Thèmes, Structures et Style, sous la direction du Professeur Henri SUHAMY. Membre de la SFEVE et de la Société de Stylistique Anglaise, il prépare un article sur Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

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