s is clear to any student of Christina Rossetti's poetry, vanitas mundi is her most frequent theme, and we have seen that this theme is as pervasive in her secular love poetry as it is in her devotional poems, where a wholesale rejection of worldly values and experiences would be expected. A philosophically crucial issue therefore — but one that is more often in the background than the foreground of the poems we have so far discussed — is the issue of choice, or (as I will term it in treating the Monna Innominata) directing the will, This is, of course, the central concern of Augustine's Confessions, and, as Charles Singleton has made clear, of Dante's cumulative works, because it is the essential issue of Christianity. In poems by Rossetti such as Goblin Market, The Prince's Progress, "Twice," or "An Apple-Gathering," characters appear to be doomed or saved because of amatory choices they have made, sometimes in innocence and sometimes with a degree of calculation. For the most part, however, the "salvation" Rossetti's characters achieve — through correct choice or through penitence and suffering after misguided choices — is equivocal. Or it is contingent upon the speakers' eventual death and admission to the afterlife of Love, awaiting which, they must morosely endure. It is, therefore, the voluntary renunciation of the world that her poems often scrutinize. In doing so, they display a Victorianized version of the Augustinian patterns of conversion and confession.
Examples of such poems of renunciation are "How One Chose" (1849), "From House to Home" (1858), "Memory" (part 1, 1857; part 2, 1865). "Three Nuns" (1849-50), and "The Convent Threshold" (1858). Most of these poems present choices and types of experience in life that remain for a woman who decides to renounce eros. In reading them we are powerfully reminded of the dominant mood in works by other Pre-Raphaelites, in which, however, renunciation is usually not a matter of choice. It is enforced by fate — the death of the beloved, or rejection by her, or obstacles to union with her. Moreover, in these other works the discourse of renunciation does not usually encompass a critique of the specifically patriarchal amatory values of the poets' culture, as it [125/126] does, implicitly or explicitly, in most of Christina Rossetti's renunciatory love poems. The other Pre-Raphaelite poets generally accept and reinforce such patriarchal values. Their poems are avant-garde and subversive, rather, in their critique of orthodox Christian values, which neither console nor substitute for failed love. It is precisely Christian, specifically Augustinian, values, however, that Christina Rossetti's poems serve to reinforce — indeed, to recover and reinvent for her era. In their artistry and power these poems supersede the accomplishment of any other Victorian religious poetry.
Choices similar to those available to Christina Rossetti's renunciatory speakers do emerge after fulfillment is prevented in poems by Swinburne, Dante Rossetti, and William Morris. Their speakers must usually resign themselves to a life of stoic endurance or look forward to death as an anodyne, although they often equivocate between the two alternatives.
Such is clearly the case in Swinburne's "The Triumph of Time," whose speaker, after rejection by his beloved, first threatens suicide and then makes drowning a surrogate oedipal act of sexual consummation:
I will go back to the great sweet mother,
Mother and lover of men, the sea.
I will go down to her, I and none other,
Close with her, kiss her and mix her with me;
Cling to her, strive with her, hold her fast. [Swinburne, Poems, 1:24]
But soon he dejectedly resigns himself to continued existence:
And grief shall endure not for ever, I know.
We shall hear, as one in a trance that hears,
The sound of time, the rhyme of the years;
Wrecked hope and passionate pain will grow
As tender things of a spring-tide sea. [Swinburne, 1:44]
The speaker here, like the female voice of the Monna Innominata, foresees the poignant sensations of melancholy that he must endure. Alternatively, at the end of Swinburne's Anactoria, the focus is not upon such "pleasures" but rather upon the achievement of death as an anodyne and release from the pains of unfulfilled passion — a goal often envisioned (as we shall see shortly) in Christina Rossetti's poems of renunciation. In Anactoria, Swinburne's Sappho, rejected by her would-be lover, laments, [126/127]
Alas, that neither moon nor snow nor dew
Nor all cold things can purge me wholly through,
Assuage me nor alay me nor appease,
Till supreme sleep shall bring me bloodless ease;
Till time wax faint in all his periods;
Till fate undo the bondage of the gods,
And lay, to slake and satiate me all through,
Lotus and Lethe on my lips like dew,
And shed around and over and under me
Thick darkness and the insuperable sea. [Swinburne, 1:66)
Yet, unlike any of Christina Rossetti's renunciatory speakers, Swinburne's Sappho is at last consoled by her belief that she will be immortalized through the reputation and continuing vitality of her poetry in "the world," Her poetry is invaluable precisely because it memorializes the tragic value to the human spirit of erotic passions inevitably doomed to frustration and unfulfillment. Thus, although she chooses the anodyne of death to relieve her suffering, she maintains her adherence to an ideology that places supreme value on carnal love and sees it, in fact, as a metaphor describing the interactions of all natural phenomena:
Blossom of branches, and on each high hill
Clear air and wind, and under in clamorous vales
Fierce noises of the fiery nightingales,
Buds burning in the sudden spring like fire,
The wan washed sand and the waves' vain desire,
Sails seen like blown white flowers at sea, and words
That bring tears swiftest, and long notes of birds
Violently singing till the whole world sings
I Sappho shall be one with all these things,
With all high things for ever; and my face
Seen once, my songs once heard in a strange place,
Cleave to men's fives, and waste the days thereof
With gladness and much sadness and long love. [Swinburne, 1:65-66)
In Dante Rossetti's poems death is not depicted, as it often is in Swinburne's, as a desirable release from the pains of disappointed love. Rather, the inevitable need to endure such pains is stressed. In Rossetti's[127/128]sonnet, "Without Her" (number fifty-three from The House of Life), the speaker confesses his desolation at the absence of his beloved, whether through her death or her rejection of him. In the poem's sestet he asks,
What of the heart without her? Nay, poor heart,
Of thee what word remains ere speech be still?
A wayfarer by barren ways and chill,
Steep ways and weary, without her thou art,
Where the long cloud, the long wood's counterpart,
Sheds doubled darkness up the labouring hill. [Dante Rossetti, Works, 92]
The "labouring hill" of stoical endurance is also the immediate prospect for Rossetti's speakers in such poems as "The Woodspurge," the "Willowwood" sonnets, "The Portrait," and even for the bereaved male lover in "The Blessed Damozel."
As in Rossetti's poems, when love fails, is renounced, or is betrayed in Morris's Defence of Guenevere poems, intense suffering and the need to endure it follow. (All citations to poems from Morris's Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems are from Cecil Lang's edition in The Pre-Raphaelites. and Their Circle. Hereafter cited in the text as Lang.) With Morris, however, the pain of hopeless love nearly always drives its victims to the brink of madness. In "The Haystack in the Floods," for instance, Jehane renounces her lover to save her honor. The alternative choice is to become the paramour of her lover's enemy, Godmar. Even before Godmar — avenging her refusal of him — butchers her lover before her eyes, Jehane realizes that, "I cannot choose but sin and sin / Whatever happens." At the end — aware that she must now endure "The long way back" and "The court at Paris," then "The swift Seine on some rainy day" — she
... shook her head and gazed awhile
At her cold hands with a rueful smile,
As though this thing had made her mad. [Lang, 264]
Similarly, in "King Arthur's Tomb," after Guenevere finally chooses a life devoted to Christ instead of to Lancelot, Arthur's greatest knight faces the torturous and maddening prospect of a life without his beloved:
"I stretched my hands toward her and fell down,
How long I lay in swoon I cannot tell:
My head and hands were bleeding from the stone,
When I rose up, also I heard a bell." [Lang, 181; 128/129]
Like the various victims of betrayed, renounced, or ill-fated love in these poems by Swinburne, Rossetti, and Morris, Christina Rossetti's renunciatory lovers face melancholy, tormented lives. Like Swinburne's poetic characters, they frequently wish for the release of death. Some, however, have a sustaining hope unavailable to Swinburne's and Morris's failed lovers but obsessive for the bereaved lovers in such poems by Dante Rossetti as "The Blessed Damozel" "The Portrait," and "The Stream's Secret." They look forward to ideal fu1fillment after death in "the flowering land of love." Such fulfillment takes two forms in Christina Rossetti's verse: it can involve ecstatic union with the beloved apart from earthly enthrallments and in the sight of God, as it is repeatedly envisioned in her brother's verse, or, more frequently, it depends solely on union with God in His transcendent Paradise of Love.
Before such fu1fillment can be attained, however, the difficult choice of renunciation must be made by her women in love. "How One Chose" rehearses, in a dialogue between two lovers who are also poets and aesthetes, the idealistic and skeptical perspectives on earthly love. The voice of the former insists that the home of ideal love — -"'Beyond the sea'" and "'Beyond the clouds'" — must be sought out, whatever the obstacles to its discovery. But the skeptical voice concludes the poem, renouncing the quest and the beloved:
"Nay, seek alone: I am no mate
For such as you, in truth;
My heart is old before its time;
Yours yet is in its youth:
This home with pleasures girt about
Seek you, for I am wearied out." [Works, 296]
In "From House to Home" (1858) the "home" is further depicted as an illusory earthly ideal, one that must be renounced in order to attain eternal fulfil1ment of the impulse to love. After the illusions of this fife have collapsed and the consequent suffering of self-denial has been endured, the speaker envisions her reward as a Heaven of Love:
Each face looked one way like a moon new-lit,
Each face looked one way towards its Sun of Love;
Drank love and bathed in love and mirrored it
And knew no end thereof.[129/130]
Glory touched glory on each blessed head,
Hands locked dear hands never to sunder more:
These were the new-begotten from the dead
Whom the great birthday bore.
Heart answered heart, soul answered soul at rest,
Double against each other, filled, sufficed:
All loving, loved of all; but loving best
And best beloved of Christ. [Poems, 1:87]
This vision is the climax of Rossetti's long allegorical poem, which is, significantly, a belated but self-conscious corrective to Tennyson's "The Palace of Art." In line 13, for instance, the speaker describes her house as a "castle" but, significantly, this term substitutes for her original word "palace" (Poems, 1:263).
In the course of her monologue, Rossetti's speaker describes her temporary seduction by "a pleasure-place within my soul; / An earthly paradise supremely fair / That lured me from the goal" (Poems, 1:82). More briefly than in Tennyson's poem, this speaker describes the landscape and animal life around her "pleasure-place" of "white transparent glass" that at first appears ideal but finally is exposed as "a tissue of hugged lies" (Poems, 1:82). Unlike the soul in "The Palace of Art," the soul of "From House to Home" is not alone but has a lover whose beauty is a reflection of the aesthetic landscape that surrounds them:
Ofttimes one like an angel walked with me,
With spirit-discerning eyes like flames of fire,
But deep as the unfathomed endless sea,
Fulfilling my desire:
And sometimes like a snowdrift he was fair,
And sometimes like a sunset glorious red,
And sometimes he had wings to scale the air
With aureole round his head.
We sang our songs together by the way,
Calls and recalls and echoes of delight;
So communed we together all the day,
And so in dreams by night. [Poems, 1:83]
These two "singers" have clearly chosen a world of love that is inseparable from the artistic activities it inspires. Sandra Gilbert explains that the "pleasure-place" is "quite dearly a paradise of self-gratifying art" inhabited by a "female poet-speakcr" (Gilbert and Gubar, Madwoman in the Attic, 571). But the abandonment of the [130/131] speaker by her "angel," who inexplicably seeks "home," a "distant land," without her, thrusts the speaker into agonized despair: she "wailed" and "gnashed" until "my heart broke and my spirit broke" (Poems, 1:85). In a swoon, she dreams of a woman "incomparably pale, and almost fair, / And sad beyond expression," who symbolizes Faith and the Church, as well as her future self. This figure is remorselessly tortured but endures: "She bled and wept, yet did not shrink." Voices in the dream discuss her suffering:
One cried: "How long? yet founded on the Rock
She shall do battle, suffer, and attain" —
One answered: "Faith quakes in the tempest shock:
Strengthen her soul again." [Poems, 1:86]
This dream culminates with an austere description of the apocalypse — "earth and heaven were rolled up like a scroll; / ... The day had come, that day" — and it subsides into the vision of heavenly love already quoted. By means of this allegory, then, the speaker justifies her present life of renunciation: "I would not if I might / Rebuild my house of lies" (Poems, 1:87). Patiently drinking of the "loathsome" cup and withstanding the "thorns" of life, without sensual pleasure and without love, and awaiting "the day when from His storehouses / God shall bring new and old," the speaker endures. But her experience, in Rossetti's imagination, is the occasion of a different kind of artistic enterprise than the hedonistic one with which the speaker begins her revelations. Rossetti's poem, as Sandra Gilbert quite rightly insists, is directed by a "moral aesthetic," but unlike the moral tag that concludes Tennyson's "Palace of Art," Rossetti's rejection of worldly pleasures is unequivocal and unambiguous (571). The soul of the speaker in Tennyson's poem only partially renounces her pleasure palace, and even then does so specifically to enter "the world":
"Make me a cottage in the vale," she said,
"Where I may mourn and pray.
"Yet pull not down my palace towers, that are
So lightly, beautifully built:
Perchance I may return with others there
When I have purged my guilt." [Poems, 418]
By contrast, Rossetti's speakers, as we have seen, generally renounce the worldly pleasures described in her poems, and the creator of those artistic[131/132]edifices transposes their palpable beauties to the New Jerusalem, "the City builded without hands" (Works, 15).
The psychological dynamic informing "Memory" is the same as that of "From House to Home." The second part of "Memory" (Poems, 1:147-48), however, was not composed until 1865, when Rossetti was at the height of her artistic powers. This poem discards the elaborate dialogical and allegorical strategies of "From House to Home" and is an accomplished illustration of Rossetti's "poetics of conciseness." The first pan of this terse, tensely understated poem describes the process by which the speaker — "Stripped bare of self-regard or forms or ruth" — chose to renounce her lover: "I ... broke my heart, / Breaking mine idol." Afterwards her life nonetheless "centres" on "a blessed memory on a throne," which she secludes in a room "no one enters / Save I myself alone." Meanwhile, she endures "While winter comes and goes" and "While bloom the bloodless lily and warm rose / Of lavish summer." Sustaining a kind of sacrificial death-in-life, like the lily in its symbolic guise, she austerely bides her time on earth, as nearly all of Rossetti's renunciatory lovers do, awaiting a fulfillment inestimably superior to the transient and guilt-ridden gratifications available to lovers on earth. In autumn, "with clear eyes," she renews herself by thinking "how it will be in Paradise / When we're together." Like the speaker herself, this poem presents itself "Stripped bare of self-regard or forms." The strength of its often monosyllabic, masculine diction — the language of breaking, bracing, and choosing — not only insists upon the finality and authority of the speaker's choice to renounce earthly love. Its directness also serves to focus on the central metonymic figure in the poem, which espouses in Augustinian fashion the at once monitory and prophetic value of memory, "that human faculty whose astonishing power Augustine first really probed and praised as the preeminent path toward the experience of God" (Jauss, Aesthetic Experience, 146).
Such renunciatory conversions as those in "From House to Home" and "Memory" also form the thematic substance of "Three Nuns" and "The Convent Threshold," poems that situate the conversion experience in a traditional, institutionalized context. The ordeals of choice and the agonies of endurance that afflict the various personae of these poems force upon them a painfully heightened consciousness of the conflict and ineradicable tension between eros and agapê, between the sensual and the ascetic fives. Rossetti's speakers have chosen the latter only with great difficulty. The very tides of "Three Nuns" and "The Convent Threshold" indicate the orthodox direction of these speakers' commitment after renouncing eros, and their monologues suggest the extent to which the [132/133] desperate characters they present need shelter, support, and continuing direction from the Church.
More important, however, these poems serve as paradigms of the specifically Augustinian pattern of renunciation and conversion common in Rossetti's poems. Understanding the operations of this pattern clarifies a number of major problems, tensions, and apparent conflicts in her poetry (and prose). As I have suggested, Augustine's Confessions was an important palimpsest, a textual precursor that thematically, ideologically, and even formally laid the groundwork for Rossetti's poems of renunciation; for a full theoretical discussion of intertextuality in these terms, see Uhlig, "Literature as Textual Palingenesis " Seeing the Confessions as palimpsest helps to explain the dialogical modes of many renunciatory poems by Rossetti, as well as the importance in them of memory, childhood innocence, lapsarian cruxes, and "severed selves."
Although "The Convent Threshold" is a more powerful and carefully crafted poem than "Three Nuns," the latter work provides a broader context for understanding the Augustinian premises, patterns of value, and behavior in Rossetti's religious poetry. Just as ""A Triad" suggests the whole spectrum of impediments to the attainment by women of any ideally satisfying love relationship in the world, "Three Nuns" sets out a range of alternative motivations for an impassioned woman to choose the life of the cloister. With all three speakers here, as with the renunciatory lovers in "The Convent Threshold" and "Memory," traditional parallels between the nun's veil and that of the bride underlie decisions to reject the world. While the ascetic life serves as a self-conscious escape from the temptations of the outside world, including that posed by eros, it also becomes a safe, albeit painful, surrogate source of fulfillment for the same passionate impulses that make life in the world so dangerous. "Three Nuns" presents dialogically interacting soliloquies by three women who renounce the world; all three ultimately desire death either as an escape from their emotional and psychological suffering, or as a transposition to "the City budded without hands" which "Shall safely shut me in" (Works, 15).
The first nun seeks death primarily as escape and views fife in the convent as tantamount to death:
Shadow, shadow on the wall,
Spread thy shelter over me;
Wrap me with a heavy pall,
With the dark that none may see. [Works, 12-13; 133/134]
Through its allusion to "Snow White" her soliloquy begins with a rejection of the mythology that culminates in fulfilled erotic love and worldly success. That mythology constitutes an invalid ideology. This nun's desperate craving for some shelter withdrawn from the world, we soon learn, results from her desire to "forget / Present sorrow and past sin." Her ambiguous "sin" clearly had to do with the speaker's vanity, which precipitated her erotic seduction. That she had been "fall of vanity and care" when "men saw and called me fair" prompted her to renounce the world: "God was left behind, curls shorn." The last stanzas of her soliloquy expand upon this terse statement, as the speaker yearns for a return to the "dream" of childhood innocence. As a child she believed she could live
Secret, neither found nor sought;
Till the lilies on the stream,
Pure as virgin purity,
Would seem scarce too pure for me. [Works, 13]
She concludes, however, "Ah but that can never be!" This woman has succumbed to worldly temptations, but she has now moved beyond the kind of bewilderment that characterizes the speaker in "An Apple-Gathering" to a full awareness of her "sin" and the torture of her shame. To assuage it, she has sought the cloister and now seeks death, its ultimate extension: "I would be dumb."
The second soliloquy of "Three Nuns" explores the psychology of another kind of woman in love. This one, unlike the first speaker, has not "sinned" or been victim to vanity or seduction; instead, she is selflessly tenacious in seeking only the well-being of her beloved. "I prayed for him," and in the afterlife "soon with surer faith shall pray / For him" (Works, 14). Moreover,
I sacrificed, he never bought;
He nothing gave, he nothing took;
We never bartered look for look. (Works, 14]
This nun's renunciation apparently issues from impotence and frustration in love, and her retreat to the cloister, like that of the first nun, is preliminary to a retreat to death: "Oh sweet is death that bindeth up / The broken and the bleeding heart" (Works, 14). Like all of Christina Rossetti's lovers who renounce eros, this one suffers, but unlike the first nun, who seeks death solely as an anodyne, this woman looks forward to a[134/135]heavenly reward for her selflessness and her pain. Indeed, "the reward is almost won, / A crown of glory and a palm" (Works,14).
The third nun presents yet another set of motives for taking the veil, unusual for Rossetti's poems in that these motives have no apparent connection with an experience of failed love. Rather, this speaker has joined the cloister from a spontaneous impulse to achieve spiritual liberation: "My heart is as a freeborn bird / Caged in my cruel breast" (Works, 14). This nun appears to have begun with an awareness that all things of the world are mutable and vain. She forcefully renounces the "delights and precious things" of the world, because "My heart shall beat with a new life / When thine is dead and cold." She envisions fulfillment in Paradise, where "Red roses like love visible" are "budding now for me." Her apparent complacency is redeemed, however, in the poem's last stanzas when she recalls how her renunciation of the world has been an ordeal — one that has, however, provided masochistic gratifications.
While still the names rang in mine ears
Of daughter, sister, wife,
The outside world stiff looked so fair
To my weak eyes, and rife
With beauty, my heart almost failed;
Then in desperate strife
I prayed, as one who prays for life, —
Until I grew to love what once
Had been so burdensome. [Works, 15-16]
Despite the fact that her heart has become "numb" in expectation of fulfillment, she is impelled to persist in her renunciation: "The Spirit and the Bride say, Come" (Works, 16). More interesting as a character than the first two nuns, whose retreat from life because of failure in love seems so familiar, the speaker of this last soliloquy reveals the full psychological complexity of the ways in which the language of religion — its use of bridal imagery and the idiom of love relationships — expedites the leap from eros to agapê. At the same time conversion forces upon the devotee the same pains of frustration and anticipation in pursuit of the ideal that erotic lovers inevitably endure, according to Rossetti's perceptions of romantic, especially Dantean and Petrarchan, tradition. Yet with its pains comes a hope for absolute fulfillment in the afterlife that defeats mutability and is unavailable to exclusively erotic lovers.[135/136]
Each speaker in "Three Nuns" presents an autobiographical confession in the Augustinian pattern, focusing on the split between present and former selves. Memory is, therefore, the pivotal faculty in understanding the experience of conversion, on the one hand, and describing proleptically the experience of Paradise — where innocence and lost ideals are recovered — on the other. Paradise also promises unity and identity with God: "I may wake again / After His likeness." Hans Robert Jauss has demonstrated that for Augustine "the first predicate of divine identity that makes the creature conscious of its dependence on its creator is all-embracing totality... [The child, although from the very beginning not without sin, has been created in Gods image" (Jauss, 143). The first speaker in "Three Nuns" appropriately wishes that in a bird's song, "I may / Dream myself once more a child," for "while yet a child, I thought / I could live as in a dream / ... Pure as virgin purity" (Works, 13). But such a dream of Wordsworthian unity of self and unity with nature is impossible to attain: "The ontological relationship between God's unity ... and man's existence, scattered into multiplicity, becomes in Augustine's Confessions, the dichotomous scheme of autobiographical portrayal that all three speakers in "Three Nuns" replicate. "Its subject is the split Christian subjectivity: an atemporal and nonlocalized writing self which ... accusingly confronts a self lost in time. Its subject matter is very sharply divided into the state preceding and following conversion," as it is in the case of each of Rossetti's nuns (Jauss, 143). The dynamic of the unified reconstitution of self that is the aim of such self-portrayals "depends upon the capacity of ...memory" (Jauss, 142). In "Three Nuns" Rossetti refracts the problem of bifurcated and multiple selves seeking a return to original unity, and she does so not only by depicting clear divisions between the past and present of each speaker, but also by representing three discrete versions of the "type" of the convert. Each looks back in a different way to the period before conversion — whether childhood, or the days when "men saw and called me fair," or when "still the names rang in my cars / Of daughter, sister, wife" (Works, 13-16). Despite conversion, however, each also remains fragmented, anticipating the attainment of self-unity, unity with renounced lovers, and unity with God in "the City builded without hands."
Significantly, Rossetti's recovery of the Augustinian pattern of conversion here and elsewhere in her poetry must be seen, according to Jauss's history of its development, as antithetical to the trend in canonical literature of the nineteenth century. For the tradition Augustine initiated,[136/137].
the new religious experience of an identity split into a naive self and a self that has withdrawn from the world offered the [nineteenth-centuryl aesthetic attitude the challenge of overcoming the heteronomy of the experience of the self and of making the "fragments of a great confession" the whole of a self-portrayal of the individuum ineffabile. And the history of the aesthetic experience does in fact show the process in the course of which poetry takes hold of the Augustinian scheme of the experience of self, secularizes memory as "world inner space" in love poetry, increasingly emphasizes the world-appropriating capacity of remembering aesthesis, utilizes, since Rousseau, its affective evidence to totalize the contingency of a life history and climaxes in Proust's poetics of recovered time ... [where] in the arrogance of "saying all there is to say," he finally usurped . . . divine omniscience. (Jauss, 147)
The ideology of works by Rossetti that follow the Augustinian pattern, though ostensibly "timeless" or "medievalist" thus locates itself historically as a particular subversive (that is, conservative) reaction against the ideology of Romanticism, as that ideology presents itself in Rousseau and Proust, but also in Blake, Wordsworth, and Shelley. At the same time, by appropriating antecedent literary traditions like that of Augustine and opposing or correcting very recent ones, Rossetti reflects the paradigmatic nineteenth-century aesthetic experience. She perfects literary works that simultaneously exploit, challenge, and withdraw from the "lapsed" ideologies dominant in the literary culture of her time.
"Three Nuns" has thematic similarities to "From House to Home" but it also has significant formal and stylistic similarities. These, in fact, epitomize the dominant emotional and psychological qualities of Rossetti's renunciatory love poems. Both poems embody the tension within their speakers between aesthetic and ascetic impulses, and both also stylistically imitate that tension. With its appropriately regular iambic tetrameter and terse phrasing, "Three Nuns" reflects the predominantly ascetic directions of its speakers' lives. Yet lush aesthetic imagery and diction irrepressibly punctuate each soliloquy. For instance, the first nun wishes to "Dream myself once more a child / ... Plucking clematis and wild / Hyacinths till pleasure grew / Tired" (Works, 13). The second nun, in a different Keatsian poetic mannerism, reveals that she is "half in love with easeful death": "Oh sweet is death, for I am weak / And weary, and it giveth rest" (Works, 14). And the third envisions heaven in voluptuous, explicitly sexual metaphors. There,[137/138]
Red roses like love visible
Are blowing on their tree,
Or white like virgin purity. [Works, 15]
Indeed, the "virgin purity" of all three nuns is tainted by the sensual impulses behind the aesthetic images that emerge in their speech, as well as by the sensuality of their languorous, melancholy dwelling on death. Renunciation and retreat from the world — that is, the ascetic life — allow them to savor the states of mind and emotion occasioned by erotic experience or by its transposition in the prospect of heavenly love. Such an aestheticization of experience would be disrupted, if not altogether prevented, by continued participation in the hurly-burly of life, which is not even allowed as a possibility in these solipsistic poems.
This is the case, too, in "The Convent Threshold" where an ascetic lover is shown to realize every possible advantage of renouncing eros. The ultimate aestheticism of her quest (and of the opportunity it provides for her creator) is exposed in the self-conscious artistry of the poem, including its form and highly polished style. "The Convent Threshold" is a dramatic monologue spoken by a woman who renounces earthly love for "the stairs that mount above, Stair after golden skyward stair" (Poenms,1:61). As in "How One Chose" the lovers here are at odds. Their situation is reminiscent of the one that develops in Tennyson's Maud: "There's blood between us, love, my love, / There's father's blood, there's brother's blood" (Poems, 1:61). But here, too, Rossetti challenges the emphatically worldly ideology of Tennyson's speaker, who attempts to exorcise the guilty effects of his refusal to renounce erotic love by volunteering to fight for England in the Crimean War. (The conclusion to Tennyson's poem continues to perplex critics. For one explanation of its operations, see Harrison, "Irony in Tennyson's 'Little Hamlet.'") By contrast, Rossetti's speaker chooses the monastic fife in order to purge her guilt, to wash herself clean of the "scarlet mud" that stains her "lily feet" as well as her heart. In pursuit of this goal, she associates herself, in the tradition of Thomas à Kempis, with the world's martyrs, who have become "Cherubim and Seraphim." These, "the offscouring" of the world, "bore the Cross, they drained the cup" and were "Racked, roasted, crushed, wrenched limb from limb" (Poems,, 1:62). The speaker's final motive for renunciation and penitence, nonetheless, is to meet her lover in Heaven "as once we met / And love with old familiar love" (Poems, 1:65). Despite the pains she expects to endure in the ascetic life ("until my sleep begin / How long shall stretch these nights and days?"), her persistently aesthetic sensibilities are visible. In the poem's third stanza, for instance, she describes the prospect of life that appears to[138/139]her unrepentent lover's eyes, and it is remarkably like the vision that confronts Arnold's Strayed Reveller as he looks down upon his companions from Circe's palace. According to the would-be nun, her lover sees
Milk-white, wine-flushed among the vines,
Up and down leaping, to and fro,
Most glad, most fall, made strong with wines,
looming as peaches pearled with dew,
Their golden windy hair afloat,
Love-music warbling in their throat,
Young men and women come and go. [Poems, 1:62]
The speaker's intuition of her lover's vision here is more sympathetic and nostalgic than derisive. Indeed, her agonized quest to sublimate the sensual and aesthetic inclinations this vision reflects~ and to repress the erotic passion that is their corollary, is designed primarily to ensure a transposed perpetuation of both sensual and passionate experience in the afterlife. This quest Is also motivated by an overpowering sense of sinfulness and, as we have come to expect in Rossetti's poetry, by a devastating sensitivity to mutability. After three tormenting dreams of her lover, she envisions herself awaking: "My face was pinched, my hair was grey" (Poems, 1:65). Yet she can endure mutability and the pains of her renunciation because of her knowledge that "all is small / Save love, for love is all in all" (Poems, 1:64) and because of her faith that this worlds transient suffering and self-denial will give way finally to a paradisal eternity of "old familiar love."
Unquestionably, Christina Rossetti had much in common with the speakers projected in her poems of renunciation, but the choices that she as an artist had to make superseded, in the complexities of their origins and operations, the choices made by the lovers she so often portrayed. Through what Jauss has termed the "aesthetic experience" Rossetti generated a set of dialogical relationships between her renunciatory poetry and "the world." Functioning at three levels, these relationships constitute one of the foremost complexities of her work. Her poems operate first, as we have seen, at the level of intercourse between each of her speakers and the world that is repudiated as unregenerate — often dupticitous, violent, and materialistic. Second, they operate at the level of interactions between the specific sociohistorical world of Victorian England (that is, the world that constitutes the audience for her poems) and the poems themselves, which[139/140] enter into that world and actively abjure its dominant amatory, economic, and moral values. Finally, these poems function at the level of intertextuality, creating a dialogue between Rossetti's poems and canonized literature both past and present.
This canon's forms and ideologies can be valorized and revitalized in her own work (as with Augustine and, as we will see, with Dante) or devalued and subverted (as, most often, with Tennyson, Keats, and Wordsworth). By means of these relationships, as Jauss has suggested, the "aesthetic experience can illuminate the structure of an historical life world, its official and implied interaction patterns and legitimations, and even its latent ideology." Frequently, literature can make "palpable ... what the historical and sociohistorical documents of the ... life world ... do not expressly record, or fail to mention." Aesthetic experience can therefore "form a world of its own without ... eliding the reference back to the suspended world of everyday life or one of its provinces of meaning. Rather, the aesthetic experience can enter into a communicative relation with the everyday world or any other reality and annul the polar opposition of [art] and reality" (Jauss, 121).
Rossetti's ultimate design was not, then, merely to embody a "moral aesthetic" in verse. As the commentaries above make clear, Rossetti used her poetry largely as a medium in which to challenge what she perceived as the values of her particular historical era, as well as to discuss basic conflicts inherent in amatory and aesthetic experience. These include conflicts between desires for gratification in this life and postponement of such gratification, between the desire of pleasure and the fear of sin, between passionate impulses and a yearning for death as an end to them, between self-indulgence and self-denial, between the real and the visionary. All such painful conflicts arc superseded, and in this sense reconciled, however, in the finality and the beauty of the poetic artifacts they generate.
A year before Christina Rossetti's death one of her female contemporaries wrote of the poet: "She has led a more hidden life than most nuns.... Her own will for seclusion and for duty has made her veil, and in some quiet Bloomsbury street or square she has pitched her cloister." Rather more angrily and with less empathy, Sandra Gilbert has observed that the poet, "banqueting on bitterness, must bury herself alive in a coffin of renunciation" (Madwoman in the Attic, 575.). Behind the admiration audible in the first critic's voice and the regret apparent in that of the second ties the perception that Rossetti, during her life of renunciation, wrote a large body of poetry with the dominant theme of renunciation. Yet these critics do not acknowledge two essential operations of her poetry. On the one hand, por-[140/141]traying speakers who adopt the pose of renunciation enabled Rossetti to dwell freely, in the discrete "subuniverse" of her poetry, on voluptuous sensations derived imaginatively from a world that had, ostensibly, been rejected. Read without awareness of its sociohistorical and intertextual commentaries, her poetry thus moves the reader, along with most of Rossetti's speakers, inward, finally, away from quotidian reality into a cloister (rather than a palace) of art. Read in its true and proper, rather than its merely self-referential, contexts, however, her poetry moves the reader to an awareness of its critical participation in social reality, as well as the reality of those literary traditions that survive to interact dialogically with social reality. For Rossetti, the single most important among such traditions was that of Dante.
Last modified July 2000