From the author's Christina Rossetti in Context which the University of North Carolina Press published in 1988. It appears in the Victorian web with the kind permission of the author, who of course retains copyright.

SINCE the early 1930s, only one major critical book has been devoted to the work of Christina Rossetti. This astonishing fact has its roots deep in the history of the modem critical tradition, which was until the 1970s dominated largely by the "new critics" in the academy. In the last fifteen years, however, the range of available critical methodologies has expanded enormously, and we have begun seriously to question the standards of literary taste and value, as well as the literary canon, established earlier in this century.

To recover what has been lost in the meantime requires, at the outset, a project of retrieval-an archaeology that will eventually expose the complete and particular contexts surrounding the production, publication, and reception of literary works. If we proceed with an awareness of our own (historically dictated) biases, we may by means of such a project come to see literary works as they have truly operated throughout the history of their existence. As has been recently argued by critics as diverse as Jerome J. McGann, Herbert Lindenberger, Marilyn Butter, and Robert Weimann, without the dialectic of an historicist approach, any literary investigation "must remain purely intersystemic." McGann, Beauty of Inflections, 344. See also Butler, "Against Tradition"; Weimann, Structure and Society; and Lindenberger, "New History." Harrison, "Reception Theory," presents a generalized theoretical exploration of what is required in a full-scale project in reception history (as a major component of the comprehensive project of a new historicist criticism).

Such an approach is especially crucial with a poet like Christina Rossetti, whose ideology, that is, whose social, moral, amatory, religious, and literary value system-is largely uncongenial to the ideologies of the academic scholars who are most likely to study her today. This book, therefore, attempts to extend the process of retrieval that truly began in 1979 with the publication of Rebecca Crump's first volume of a varionim edition of Rossetti's complete poems. Here I attempt to reclaim and delineate the various contexts of Rossetti's work in order to understand more fully its operations. The following chapters examine the contemporary reception of Rossetti's poetry, the historical relation of her work to that of the other Pre-Raphaelite poets, the connections between her own and Ruskinian as well as Tractarian aesthetics, and her transvaluations; of the Neoplatonic traditions of amatory poetry that reached their highest level of achievement in the Renaissance with the poetry of Dante and Petrarch.

Discussions of such contexts and of the intertextual qualities of Rossetti's work lead to a focus on the culturally important tension that emerges in her poetry between aestheticism (as defined by Walter Pater in his 1868 review of the poetry of William Morris) and asceticism (Rossetti's Victorian adaptation of the dominant impulse of the Middle Ages). In Rossetti's Poetry the interaction between these two ostensibly opposed modes of behavior and modes of discourse is powerfully reciprocal. Both lead finally to a solipsistic withdrawal from any active life in the world in favor of a life committed to poetic and religious idealities. Imagined forms of spiritual fulfillment become "acstheticized" and are often expressed in sensuous images, while the desire for sensory and erotic satisfaction is elided or transmuted into traditional religious aspirations and language. Ultimately, Rossetti's poetry enacts a wholesale renunciation of this world not only because it is intrinsically evil or fallen, but also and consequently because all that it can offer is "never enough" for the "craving heart."

We might easily conclude that such a radical withdrawal into the "narrow chamber of the individual mind" would have been, for an intelligent, middle-class Victorian woman, the only available escape from a corrupt and inhospitable world, one that denied her the possibility of true independence, unqualified professional achievement, or the retention of complete integrity in marriage. But fully understanding the values espoused in Rossetti's poetry and comprehending the implications of that poetry's everywhere implicit turning upon itself (as the exclusive habitation of craved idealities) also requires a detailed knowledge of the value systems available and acceptable to her in forging a literary ideology.


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Last modified July 2000