Christina Rossetti

Poetry, Ecology, Faith

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Emma Mason
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     2018.
     240 pages.
     $39.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198723691.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) remains one of the most beloved poets of Victorian England, and her celebrated poem “Goblin Market” still is taught today in high school and college classrooms. Yet, many have found Rossetti to be a perplexing and elusive figure in that her poetry reflects two very different influences: her Tractarian, Anglo-Catholic religion and her affiliation with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. In Christina Rossetti: Poetry, Ecology, Faith, Emma Mason joins other scholars—such as Diane D’Amico and Mary Arseneau—who have sought to reconcile seeming inconsistencies between her poetry and her biography. Uniquely drawing on ecocriticism and animal studies, Mason argues that Rossetti’s poetry is teeming with an “ecological love command” (3) to love humans as well as nonhumans, the organic and the inorganic. Moreover, this impulse of ecological sensitivity persists throughout the many vacillations and changes of tone in her poetic career. Mason effectively supports this argument through close readings of several poems, detailed biographical analysis, and invaluable historical context on Tractarian theology and the Pre-Raphaelite movement in aesthetics.

Mason’s introduction situates Rossetti as part of a Christian, proto-environmentalist movement desirous to form an ethical relationship with creation in response to the evils of British imperialism, the Industrial Revolution, and vivisection. Mason asserts that ecotheological readings of Rossetti’s poems are not “presentist” readings but rather “historicist” readings, and she hopes that her work can initiate future studies at the intersection of ecocriticism and Victorian studies. The Tractarian theology that Rossetti read—that of John Keble, John Henry Newman, and Edward Pusey—convinced her of a highly visible ecological love command: to see the Oneness of God in both living and nonliving things. Christina Rossetti, a devout Anglo-Catholic and Tractarian, espouses themes of kinship within nature, the nonduality of spirit and matter, and kenosis (self-emptying). Substantiating Mason’s ecotheological approach are key biographical details—for example, Rossetti’s request to be buried in a perishable coffin, her efforts in the Anti-Vivisection Movement, and her volunteering at Highgate Penitentiary for “fallen women.” 

In chapter 1, “What is Catholic is Christian,” Mason examines Rossetti’s early years (1830-1849) and her involvement with Tractarianism through attending Christ Church, Albany Street. Contrary to other studies that depict Rossetti’s poetic creativity being stifled by organized religion, Mason argues that, for Rossetti, “Tractarianism directed the believer to the things of the world, human, floral, animal, mineral, as part of a network in which every being was connected with the divine” (35). Close readings of her early poems, such as “Sweet Death,” accompany biographical details to portray Rossetti’s successful attunement to an immanent world order. Readings of Rossetti’s early poetry are filtered through Tractarian accounts of the trinity, the sacraments, and grace as described by some of the Oxford Movement’s leaders, namely, John Henry Newman, William Dodsworth, Isaac Williams, and Edmund Pusey—all of whom Rossetti most certainly read.

Chapter 2, “Kinship and Creation,” delves into Rossetti’s association with the Pre-Raphaelites and her developing aesthetic taste. It also contains a nuanced reading of her most famous poem, “Goblin Market,” claiming that the poem consistently subverts the duality between nonhuman and human, matter and spirit, in order to articulate a kinship among all creation—perhaps best epitomized in the poem’s Eucharistic imagery. Also included in this chapter are details about Rossetti’s relationship with her brother, Gabriel, and the rest of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, notably, the Roman Catholic James Collison, who proposed to (and was rejected by) Rossetti. In the midst of Mason’s astute analysis of Rossetti’s 1850-1862 writings, specifically her fascination at this time with Plato and Gregory of Nyssa, it becomes clear that “Pre-Raphaelitism offered her [Rossetti] an aesthetic through which to articulate the urgency of equal fellowship” that defied the secular logic of anthropocentric exceptionalism (62-63). 

Chapter 3, “Pretty Beasts and Flowers,” documents how Rossetti’s poetry begins to explore the ethical dimension of the ecological love command inherent in Tractarian theology. Her poetry and correspondence from 1863-1884 reveal a maturing sense of an immanent world order in which human and nonhuman creation reflect divine grace. Rossetti rejected an anthropocentric vision of man as steward over God’s creation, instead favoring a companionable vision in which humanity was co-heir alongside nonhuman creation. Rossetti’s studies in botany, her visits to the newly opened London Zoo, and her readings of St. Francis of Assisi informed her belief that “every element in creation [is] conscious, and all fauna and flora [are] thinking beings capable of faith and compassion for others” (124). These beliefs led her into a more active political posture. For example, she became an active member of the National Anti-Vivisection Society. Tractarians and Anglo-Catholics tended to be heavily involved in this campaign, viewing science’s disregard for the sanctity of life as an abhorrent sin. 

In the final chapter, “Green Grace and the End of Time,” Mason explores Rossetti’s later years (1885-1894) and corrects misconceptions about Rossetti’s tone in her writings. Time Flies (1885), The Face of the Deep (1892), and Verses (1893) dwell on the apocalypse and eschatological themes—they are devotional texts, and previous scholarship has often considered them as constrained, uncreative, and even weak. Mason joins scholars like Josh King who have revived interest in Rossetti’s later works by focusing on the overarching ecological themes of kenosis, and what Mason calls “green grace” (159). The theological underpinnings of “green grace” explain how Rossetti viewed the “end of times” as a restorative, redemptive event. Rossetti’s final writings suggest “a theology of kenosis and weakness, one in which the human and nonhuman are gentled into a preparatory anticipation of the Second Advent” (162). Whereas previous scholarship on late Rossetti poetry insists that her tone is renunciatory and retreating, Mason makes a compelling case for an anticipatory tenor; a tone of excitement at the impending hope for a redeemed and unified nature. Not only is this book an important contribution to Rossetti scholarship, it is also a welcome addition to scholarship on feminism, animal studies, ecopoetics, ecotheology, and even posthumanism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eric Bontempo is a doctoral student in the Department of English & Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Date of Review: 
January 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Emma Mason is Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick. Her research focuses on poetry and poetics 1750-present, religion and literature, philosophy and literature, ecology, and affect theory. She is the co-author of Nineteenth-Century Religion and Literature: An Introduction (with Mark Knight; OUP, 2006) and Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century (Northcote House Publishers Ltd, 2004). Mason edits the Bloomsbury monograph series New Directions in Religion and Literature; and co-edits the Year's Work in Critical and Cultural Theory (with Neil Badmington; OUP).

Add New Comment

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.

Log in to post comments