Among things I’d like to use the blog for: a drafting board. In March, I’ll be giving a talk on Christina G. Rossetti, and though I’ve already started writing some ideas, I haven’t done much work, and thought I’d include some of what I’ve done on here and continue writing bits and pieces here, some of which I might use, others which I won’t.
Christina, brother of Dante Gabriel, William, and–the least lettered–Maria, must be among the three or four great Victorian poets, alongside Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, and perhaps Thomas Hardy or Hopkins.
Having ranks of poets is not entirely mindless; it can lead to sharpening the criteria by which we judge, and these criteria in turn can help us to better notice what is happening with the words on the page; sharper criteria might make for better tools of analysis. (They can also, of course, also bind and blind, to narrow and cramped positions.) Christina G. Rossetti is in that first rank because she unites several of the supreme virtues of poetry: the muscular prose of her syntax, the astonishing purity of her diction (or, maybe the word Davie should have used, “register”), with carefully modulated deviations, the shyly and self-consciously self-dramatizing rhetoric, and most of all the capacity to find words that suggest entire realms of feeling and experience that hover around the poem, sustaining it, so that it seems a crystallization and ordering in miniature of a chaotic atmosphere of life. Like all great poets, she is genuinely suggestive (T.S. Eliot on William Morris, in the essay on Andrew Marvell: “the verses of Morris, which are nothing if not an attempt to suggest, really suggest nothing”).
She stands also with Tennyson and Browning because she innovates; she discovers new capacities in language to make discoveries about life and the world. (Proust on discovery: “It remained to Berma’s credit that she discovered it, but can one use the word “discover” when the object in question is something that would not be different if one had been given it, something that does not belong essentially to one’s own nature since someone else may afterwards reproduce it?”–Trans. Moncrieff, Kilmartin, Enright; vol 2, 193).
In her poetry, it is the inheritance of hymns, Wordsworth’s plain style, the King James Bible of course, and probably an Italian Renaissance sonnet tradition (Petrarch, Dante, others I don’t know anything about) that she would have known from childhood, which mix to produce something new in its cold metallic reticence and unflappable calm.
Tennyson, either chary or withholding of critical remarks, at least in public, admired her. His son, Hallam, records: “Of Christina Rossetti, as a true artist, he expressed profound respect.” Moving in its brevity; his respect was worth a great deal to most of his contemporaries, and he pays her a sort of homage by saying no more, but inviting readers to discover her on their own (he is more garrulous in picking at Browning’s poetic garrulity).
But she has not been well-served by twentieth-century critics. She was a favorite of Larkin’s, and he does her the honor of elevating her alongside Emily Dickinson. Dickinson we all know to be a genius, a bold scientist in the laboratory of verse; she’s hardly a shut-in in the House of Literary Fame, where Rossetti is more likely to be upstairs in the bedrooms while the party is raging in the parlor.
Aside from Larkin, there’s not much that does what criticism does–helps us see anew, or for the first time, and helps us to apprehend, and comprehend, the life of poetry. The one great exception is Eric Griffiths, whose essay on Rossetti, originally a lecture, was published in Essays in Criticism in 1996: “The Disappointment of Christina Rossetti.” It’s a rich mine and yet, perhaps because of its feline delight in clawing, playfully and viciously, at other critics, it has not been drawn on much; not enough anyway.
My talk is on Rossetti and questions. She asks a great many. Lots of poets ask questions, of course–but she asks more. I need to find some numbers to support me, but a quick look at the titles in the excellent Penguin edition of her work shows how often questions head the poems, and this is even before considering the questions that are in the poems. She takes questions up in some of the poems, too; she cares about whether she ought to ask questions and, I think, about how to ask questions.
Questions after all can be classified in so many ways. (The Saul Steinberg cartoon: http://movingimages.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/saul-steinberg-question-marks2.jpg) They don’t all do the same things, and her questions, I am going to explain in the talk, do something particular that leads to the deeper forces; it’s my preferred way of doing criticism to trace dust drifting on the surface in order to find the deeper currents of a work. Hers are not the portentous rhetorical questions of Yeats, nor plaintive, seeking questions of Lowell. They are somewhere between rhetorical questions and “genuine” questions.
A clue for how to approach them is found in Griffith’s essay, where he writes: “Rossetti has nothing as sublime as Job, though her lyrics are comparably genuine as they bring together in utterance a ‘consciousness of…inadequateness’ and a grateful iteration which finds its own words somehow successful, felicitous even. A speaker can really feel both these ways and at the same time about words, troublous though this is for a theory of language to describe”—Griffiths (110)—It’s this balance of feeling that I’m interested in–often,her questions evince both the “consciousness of inadequateness”of her language, and of herself–and are also “grateful iterations” that find their “own words somehow successful, felicitous even.” In future posts, I’ll start to explain how this is; it’s the explanation that I’m working on. It involves God, having a soul, and some other things.