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Christina Rossetti Handout

1.

Christina Rossettis poems (like An Apple Gathering and A Triad) are not situated in a recognizably
Victorian social context. The rural setting of the orchard in the first poem, its metrical pattern and its subject a woman forsaken
by her lover give it the appearance of a traditional ballad. Its pastoral imagery is timeless and not historically defined by the
cultural specificities of any particular age. The second poem A Triad is even more general and rarefied in its image motifs,
describing three types of womanhood which can be found in any society at any historical moment. The long-ago and far-away
look of the poems, their aesthetic conciseness and ahistorical setting are all carefully cultivated effects of pre Raphaelite
medievalism in CRs poetry.

2.

But the poems have a deceptive simplicity about their surface texture. On second and third readings Rossettis
poems reveal several layers of meaning not accessible on a first reading. Social, moral and psychological complexities are
suggested, which make the poems intriguing and enigmatic. Finally, there is almost always a religious signification which gives
the poem its deepest meaning, but also leaves it open ended without any conclusive In both poems the speakers voice has a
plaintive note which is to be distinguished from the more ambivalent and ironic perspective of the poet behind the speaker. The
speaker of An Apple Gathering sees herself as more sinned against than sinning, and her rhetorical questions in the fifth stanza
(ostensibly addressed to the man who has seduced and deserted her, but actually directed at God) are meant to strike the reader as
a cry of protest against social injustice. In Victorian society, the slightest sexual misdemeanour might cause a woman to lose her
social standing and be denied the shelter, security and comfort of a home and family life. Many Victorian poems, including some
written by male pre-Raphaelite poets deal with the social wrongs underlying a womans fall into prostitution, but in most cases
the fallen woman is presented as a solitary figure destroyed by a social system that holds the woman rather than the man as
responsible for sexual transgressions committed together, and thus doomed to suffer alone. Before the last stanza of An Apple
Gathering focuses on the speakers solitary, outcast state, she is permitted to make a case in defense of herself. Instead of mutely
accepting her punishment the speaker complains about her lovers double standard in seducing her and choosing to marry a
safer woman, Gertrude, who will make a better wife and mother than a girl who has responded impulsively to her lovers
overtures. Through the speakers helpless questioning and her defensive confession, I counted apples fat less worth than love,
the poet is able to suggest that she sees herself as more innocent than both Willie and Gertrude, because they have made a
contract of economic exchange the basis of their marital relationship, not love. It is not clear, however, that the poet shares her
view and wishes to exonerate the speaker. The relationship of the first couple, Lilian and Lilias, represents an ideal form of love
(sibling love, romantic love or platonic love) that never enters the domain of the marketplace the site of a phallic economy of
exchange (which is also represented by the symbolism of Goblins selling their fruits in Rossettis Goblin Market). It thus enjoys
the full protection of the mother. The speaker, like Lizzie in Goblin Market, has given in to temptation and made a voluntary
choice of transgressing the approved moral codes of society. But if the girl-speaker, by yielding to the sensuous demands of
love, has lost her place forever in her mothers home, where do they stand who are even more selfish and earthy than her? The
plumpness of Gertrude and Willies preference for her suggests that they both have a streak of gross materialism in them. The
shrewd calculation of marriage prospects which Gertrude hides under the faade of chastity (apples with their green leaves piled
above), and Willies refusal to accept a girl whose virginity he himself has taken make them equally duplicitous. In comparison
with them the speaker appears to be less corrupted in her natural expression of sexuality offering both body and soul to the man
whom she loves in a spontaneous gesture. But if this caused her to lose her hold of her body, it will also prove damaging for her
soul. All this is suggested through the poets symbolic communication to the reader of the hopelessness of the girls plight. The
speakers moral lapse is due to her inability to understand the terms and conditions of exchange in the marriage market. It is a
mark of her folly her lack of worldly wisdom even though she vainly attempts to vindicate it as a sign of her spiritual purity.
The poet makes the reader understand both the social perspective and the girls viewpoint, but does not take a stand in favour of
either.

3.

In the last three stanzas the poet, Christina Rossetti, hints ironically to the reader that the speakers perception
of her self as not guilty does not give us the complete picture of her situation. Her attempt to exonerate herself in the eyes of God
and the patriarchal social order is not altogether acceptable. As in her other poems on the same theme (like Cousin Kate),
Rossetti makes it clear that the wronged womans view of the other woman who has replaced her is tainted with jealousy, and
that she cannot entirely succeed in explaining away her own responsibility. The psychological complexity inherent in presenting
the speakers story about herself as a self-contained narrative implicitly qualified by the poets indirect suggestions to the
reader, and it enables us to see that there is a moral ambiguity about her self representation which she herself cannot see. The
woman who has fallen in Victorian society must accept her fate with endurance and renunciation in order to reinstate her image
as a spiritual entity, rather than as a victim of social injustice.

4.

Our perception of the girls situation as an instance of social injustice to be blamed on the man who has
deserted the girl seems as incomplete as the conservative view that the girl has sinned and must face the consequences of her
inadvertent transgression. The last stanza of the poem builds up an image of destitution and desperation, where the girl does not
even have the strength to think about her future. The repetition of the word loitering is an allusion to the spectral woman in
Keatss La Belle Dame Sans Merci ironically revisioning the myth of the femme fatale or woman-as-seductress image in
which beautiful women were often represented in Romantic and Victorian poetry. In An Apple Gathering the seduced girl has
become a shadow of her former self; she has lost all connections with her past life and is fast losing the little bit of consciousness
that is left to her. The repetition of the word loitering makes the reader feel that she is dragging her feet with great difficulty,
and soon she will become a dead soul to the world. In contrast to this anticipation of the emotional paralysis which will grip the
girl as a prostitute, Rossetti builds up a silent moral aesthetic in the image of the dews falling fast upon her head as she blindly
stumbles through the growing darkness. The image can be interpreted as an example of the figure of speech that Ruskin defined
as pathetic fallacy, but it is more than that. It is replete with a religious symbolism signifying sacramental communion between
the divine presence in nature and a human recipient who, in this case, is hardly conscious of it. But it evokes the readers deepest
sympathy for the girl who no longer attempts to excuse herself, and has now become a voiceless object like a distant image in a
painting because it suggests that God himself has forgiven her (even though, and at the same time, nature appears to be crying
for her). The implied analogy of the fallen woman with Mary Magdalene is given a special twist in that the poet appears to side
with neither the Christian religious perspective, nor the Victorian humanist perspective by refusing to represent the speaker as
either blissfully saved or irrevocably ruined for all time to come. What strikes the reader as the most potent impression at the end
of the poem is the complete blankness about any possible future for the girl.

5.

So we see that there is, after all, an element of social realism in Rossettis poems which unobtrusively reorients
the institutional and ideological assumptions of middle class Victorian readers. Her poems also have a wealth of pictorial details
which appeal to the visual imagination (as for example the sparse, but sensual references to the luscious appearance of the fruits,
or the movement of scenes from a bright spring morning to a rich autumnal sunset that closes with the chilling fall of dusk), but
almost all these details have a symbolic significance along with their naturalistic role in enhancing the beauty of the poem. The
symbolism of the apple functions at various levels. First, in Christian tradition it is the forbidden fruit of temptation, associated
with Eve and the sinfulness of womans sexuality and her desire for knowledge; secondly, in classical and romantic poetry it
signifies womans beauty and sensuality, offered as a trophy or reward to man; thirdly, in Blakes poetry, the difference between
the blossoms and fruits of the apple tree stands for the gap between innocence and experience and fourthly, like the fruits sold by
the goblins in Rossettis Goblin Market, the apples in An Apple Gathering suggest the idea of commodification of the womans
body in capitalist market economy whether for marriage or for prostitution. Rather than being a virtue, chastity becomes a
value added to the natural worth of a womans sexual appeal.

6.

Most of the intriguing nuances of meaning in Rossettis poems are conveyed through patterns of colour
symbolism (such as apples with their green leaves piled above), and intimate, but obscure relationships with objects of nature
(or plants and animals) amounting to a special kind of symbolic realism described as a sacramental view of reality.
The detailed representation of even the smallest objects ... makes each one a possible focus of contemplation, thus
[implying] a symbolic view of the world, in which each object can become instinct with meaning. By thus singling out
each object, the Pre-Raphaelites build into their painting stylistically the impetus to a sacramental view of reality... Such
portrayal reflects an assumption about the way man perceives. Faced with a world of natural objects instinct with
symbolic meaning, man can understand that meaning by intensity of contemplation. [Finer Optic, 60-61]

7.

In A Triad, Rossettis extensive use of colour symbolism becomes a way of differentiating the character and
situation of each of the three social types of womanhood the prostitute, the wife and the spinster but it also becomes the basis
of a deeper religious symbolism of differentiating three Old and New Testament types of iconic women represented by Jezebel
(OT) or Mary Magdalene (NT), Eve and Virgin Mary. There is a hint of blasphemy in the suggested correspondences between
the Victorian women and their Biblical prototypes already anticipated in the title which plays upon the patriarchal religious
concept of the Trinity. This kind of symbolism is called typological symbolism, and it is exploited for a fuller effect in the poem
Eve.

8.

Rossettis treatment of the theme of love even in her secular poems is thus often tempered by religious
symbolism, but in the end it always takes an ironic turn hinting at unspoken possibilities hidden in the gap between the speaker
and the poet, which give each of the poems the appearance of an emotional riddle. The suggestion of an unholy trinity in the title
of the poem A Triad is given a sudden twist in the concluding line by alluding to the idea of Christ as bridegroom ( through the
bridal imagery of crossing the threshold), and that all three women might have been redeemed by Christ if only they had sought
him rather than Death.

O Christina Rossetti, I have humbly to confess that though I know many of your poems by heart, I have not read your works
from cover to cover. I have not followed your course and traced your development. I doubt indeed that you developed very
much. You were an instinctive poet. You saw the world from the same angle always. Years and the traffic of the mind with
men and books did not affect you in the least. You carefully ignored any book that could shake your faith or any human being
who could trouble your instincts. You were wise perhaps. Your instinct was so sure, so direct, so intense that it produced
poems that sing like music in ones ears like a melody by Mozart or an air by Gluck. Yet for all its symmetry, yours was a
complex song. When you struck your harp many strings sounded together. Like all instinctives you had a keen sense of the
visual beauty of the world. Your poems are full of gold dust and sweet geraniums varied brightness; your eye noted
incessantly how rushes are velvet-headed, and lizards have a strange metallic mail your eye, indeed, observed with a
sensual pre-Raphaelite intensity that must have surprised Christina the Anglo-Catholic. But to her you owed perhaps the
fixity and sadness of your muse. The pressure of a tremendous faith circles and clamps together these little songs. Perhaps
they owe to it their solidity. Certainly they owe to it their sadness your God was a harsh God, your heavenly crown was set
with thorns. No sooner have you feasted on beauty with your eyes than your mind tells you that beauty is vain and beauty
passes. Death, oblivion, and rest lap round your songs with their dark wave. And then, incongruously, a sound of scurrying
and laughter is heard. There is the patter of animals feet and the odd guttural notes of rooks and the snufflings of obtuse furry
animals grunting and nosing. For you were not a pure saint by any means. You pulled legs; you tweaked noses. You were at
war with all humbug and pretence. Modest as you were, still you were drastic, sure of your gift, convinced of your vision. A
firm hand pruned your lines; a sharp ear tested their music. Nothing soft, otiose, irrelevant cumbered your pages. In a word,
you were an artist. And thus was kept open, even when you wrote idly, tinkling bells for your own diversion, a pathway for
the descent of that fiery visitant who came now and then and fused your lines into that indissoluble connection which no hand
can put asunder.
Virginia Woolf

Eve (1865)
Rossetti is reinventing a new myth of Eve which is both derived and distinct from the canonical mythology of the Fall in
Genesis.
In traditional Christian iconography Eve is the type of the insubordinate wife. She is held responsible for the original sin and
is supposed to have brought down the punishment of mortality upon mankind. The sexuality of Eve, and therefore of all
women, is considered sinful because it was only in the fallen state that Adam approached her with lust. All major Victorian
women poets thought of themselves as daughters of Eve carrying the burden of her sins and wrote with reference to Eves
allotted grief as Elizabeth Barrett Browning remarked about her own poetry.
In an unpublished poem called An Afterthought CR wrote: Who can tell what memories/Of lost beloved
Paradise/Saddened Eve with sleepless eyes? CR hopes that in the interlude between Paradise and Heaven (i.e. in death) Eve
now slumbers there forgiven along with all the blessed dead.
In this poem (i.e. Eve) CR represents Eve as a mother, willing to accept her responsibility for the Fall and therefore for the
death and sinfulness of her sons, but she also complains that Adam ate the apple so that he would not have to part with her.
He and his sons might have lived happily in Paradise if Adam had permitted her to die and thus escaped the punishment
which fell upon the two of them.
Eves deep sense of guilt and remorse is the theme of the poem Eve, occasioned by the act of her son Cain slaying his
brother Abel. She is represented as mother of all living (a less well known Biblical description of Eve than the more popular
image of Adams insubordinate wife exploited by Milton in Paradise Lost and in the patriarchal literary tradition). But CR
gives it an ironic twist by making Eve perceive herself as doomed to be the mother of all who must die.
Eve accepts her own responsibility (her error of judgement lies in choosing the tree of death i.e. knowledge of good and evil
over her assigned feminine duty of nurturing the tree of life), but refuses to take the responsibility for Adams sin (CR
commented elsewhere on the difference in Eve and Adams share of moral culpability resulting in their different modes of
suffering; man was destined to suffer in death, woman in life).
Through a prolepsis (rhetorical figure for anticipation) of Christ in the description of the body of Abel (one slain by his
brother) Abel becomes a typological symbol of Christian martyrdom anticipating Christs. Similarly, Eve is typologically
equated with Mary. The traditional antithesis between Mary and Eve, two opposite moral types in canonical Christian
tradition (cf. quotation from CRs prose work The Face of the Deep), is suggestively dissolved.
The poem consists of two parts. In the first part, Eve is the speaking subject who tells the reader how she and Adam had
sinned differently. In the second part, Eve is transformed into an object almost like the pivotal human figure in a picture
which turns into a detailed study of animal life. All creation empathizes with Eves grief (typically Pre-Raphaelite description
of nature and its denizens empathizing with the human subject). Note the play of words describing the sensory details of each
creatures natural traits or habits to create a poignant verbal-visual picture of their comforting presence around Eve (Cf.
quotation from Virginia Woolfs remarks on Christina Rossettis poetry below). This solidarity expressed by natures
creatures enhances the effect of Eves vulnerability and innocence on the one hand; on the other it suggests that Eves
position in the chain of being is lower than that of Adam. This is already evident in the way Eve separates her culpability
from Adams, but fails to see that her sin is the worse offence because she sinned for her self, while Adam sinned for her.
So the division into the two parts, corresponding with a subjective and an objective representation of Eve, is intended to
expose the blindness inherent in Eves reasoning. The symbol of the snake (signifying Satans deviousness in Christian
tradition) with its forked tongue does not appear till the end of the poem. Elsewhere Rossetti wrote that Satan had played on
Eves desire to acquire reason and speech (like a man). The symbolic use of this image at the end of Eve suggests a hidden
duplicity/ potential for deception hidden in the very form of communicative language, of which Eve is not aware.
Further, the snake is not a symbol of Satan alone, but of the serpentine woman. Miltons Adam castigates Eve with this
epithet in Bk IX of Paradise Lost; the idea is also found in male Romantic representations of the snake woman as seductress
in Coleridges Christabel and Keatss Lamia; finally, it appears in DG Rossettis painting of Lady Lilith and his two poems
on Lilith with Lilith laying out the future plan for seducing Eve to her lover Satan and hatching the plot for getting her sons
killed.

The conclusion of CRs poem (with the snake keeping itself apart from all other animals and lying in wait for her) is
reminiscent of the words with which God had cursed the snake (not Satan), saying: And I will put enmity between thee and
the woman, and between her seed and thy seed. This suggests that Eve is gullible and guileless, she cannot recognize or
remember her enemy in a time of crisis; but it could also suggest that Eves tendency to deceive herself, especially in
shrinking away from sharing the moral burden of Adams sin, is a source of hidden evil within her own nature. After all, we
often deceive ourselves with our self justifying words.
Eve is thus re-imagined (from the point of view of a daughter of Eve) as both different from nineteenth century male
representations of the sexualized femme fatale, and as a woman pathetically unconscious of transmitting to her children her
own desire to play a Promethean role by bringing the light of God to man. She has not taken into account her own limitations
as a mother in instilling the seeds of disobedience in her sons, who continue to violate Gods commandments as she herself
had done. Yet the responsibility for mans fallen state and mortality is not confined to Eves conscious transgression (as Eve
wants to believe but cannot make herself accept altogether), but is subtly distributed over Satan and the unknowable darkness
of the human psyche.
BIBLIOGRAPHY
Anthologies
Christina Georgina Rossetti and R. W. Crump. Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti, Variorum Edition
Christina Rossetti, R. W. Crump and Betty S. Flowers. The Complete Poems (Penguin Classics)
Christina Rossetti and Dinah Roe. Selected Poems (Penguin Classics)
Christina Rossetti and Simon Humphries. Poems and Prose (Oxford World's Classics)

Criticism: Books
Armstrong, Isobel. Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics. London: Routledge, 1993.
Armstrong, Isobel, ed. Women's Poetry, late Romantic to Late Victorian: Gender and Genre, 1830-1900.
NY: St. Martin's Press, 1999. PR585 W6 W66 1998
Arseneau, Mary, ed. The Culture of Christina Rossetti: Female Poetics and Victorian Contexts. Ohio U
Press, 1998.
Arseneau, Mary. Recovering Christina Rossetti: Female Community and Incarnational Poetics. Palgrave,
2004.
Barringer, Tim. Reading the Pre-Raphaelites. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.
Bristow, Joseph, ed. Victorian Women Poets: Emily Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti.
NY: St. Martin's Press, 1995. PR595 W6 V53 1995
Burlinson, Kathryn. Christina Rossetti. Plymouth: British Council, 1998. PR5238 B87 1998
Chapman, Alison. The Afterlife of Christina Rossetti. New York: Macmillan, 2000
Cosslett, Tess, ed. Victorian Women Poets. (Longman Critical Readers Series). Addison Wesley Pub., 1997.

DAmico, Diane. Christina Rossetti: Faith, Gender and Time. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University
Press, 1999.
Hanley, Evelyn A. The Subjective Vision: Six Victorian Women Poets. New York: Astra, 1978. Includes
Emily Bronte, EBB, CR, Alice Meynell, Mary Coleridge, Dora Shorter.
Hickok, Kathleen. Representations of Women: Nineteenth-Century British Women's Poetry. Westport, CT:
Greenwood Press, 1984. PR 85 .W58 H52.
Harrison, Antony H. Christina Rossetti in Context. Brighton: Harvester, 1988.
Harrison, Antony H. Victorian Poets and Romantic Poems: Intertextuality and Ideology. Charlottesville:
University Press of Virginia, 1990. PR 595 .R6 H37. Includes CR and EBB, among other poets.
Hawksley, Lucinda. Essential Pre-Raphaelites. Bath: Dempsey Parr, 1999.
Jones, Kathleen. Learning Not To Be First: The Life of Christina Rossetti. Moreton-in-Marsh,
Gloucestershire: Windrush, 1991. PR 5238 .J66.
Leighton, Angela, ed. Victorian Women Poets: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.
PR595 W6 V52 1996
Leighton, Angela, ed. Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart. Charlottesville: U Press of
Virginia, 1992. PR 595 W6 L45 1992
Marsh, Jan. Christina Rossetti: A Writers Life/Marsh, Jan. Christina Rossetti: A Literary Biography.
London: Jonathan Cape, 1994. PR5238 M37 1994
-----. The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal. London; New York: Quartet Books, 1989. PR5452 .S19 Z75.
-----.The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood. London; New York: Quartet Books, 1985. N 6767.5 .P7 M37.
Palazzo, Lynda. Christina Rossettis Feminist Theology. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002.
Roe, Dinah. Christina Rossettis Faithful Imagination: The Devotional Poetry and Prose. Basingstoke:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Rosenblum, Dolores. Christina Rossetti: The Poetry of Endurance. Carbondale: South Illinois University
Press, 1986.

Criticism: Articles
Boos, Florence. "Rossetti's Poetic Daughters," Turn-of-the-Century Women Poets and the Use of the
Sonnet." Outsiders Looking In: The Rossettis Then and Now, eds. David Clifford and Lauren Rousillon.
Anthem Press, 2003
Campbell, Elizabeth. Of Mothers and Merchants: Female Economics in Christina Rossettis Goblin
Market . Victorian Studies 33.3 (1990), 393-410.

Harrison, Anthony H. "Christina Rossetti in Context." The Victorian Web. 2007-06-24. 2013-08-16.
<http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/crossetti/harrison2/5n12.html>.
Anthony H. Harrison. "Pre-Raphaelite Love." The Victorian Web. 2007-06-24. 2013-08-18.
<http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/crossetti/harrison2/4.2.html>.
Kate Moller. "Themes of Love in Maude Clare." The Victorian Web. 2003-10-28. 2013-08-19.
<http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/crossetti/moller6.html>.
"Maude Clare." 2013-08-24. <http://www.crossref-it.info/textguide/The-poetry-of-ChristinaRossetti/28/1847>.