I suppose it’s accurate to say that we live in an archaeological age. We in the West spend a great deal of time investigating and re-evaluating the past, sometimes to our benefit, sometimes not so much. There are, for example, a number of minor baroque and classical composers whose music has been recorded in the past few years, and now we know why they are considered minor and were largely forgotten until excavated by musicologists needing dissertation topics. On the other hand, we have Scarlatti. The same holds true of literary figures, among them Christina Rossetti.
I can’t honestly say that I regard Rossetti as a “minor” poet, just as one who has not risen on my personal horizon very frequently. Nor can I claim that Constance W. Hassett’s Christina Rossetti: The Patience of Style is a re-evaluation so much as an intense examination of the poet and her poetry. I do, however, value thoughtful investigations of poetry almost as much as I value the poetry itself, and so I was very interested in reading this book.
Hassett’s treatment takes us somewhat outside the normal mechanics that scholars usually focus on. It is a style that, to Hassett’s mind, embodies “patience” through the use of muteness, understatement, and restrained rhythms, a strategy that is particularly “feminine,” especially in the context of Victorian literature.
Hassett leads off with “Questions of Desire in Goblin Market and Other Poems,” a chapter that explores the paradoxes of desire in “Goblin Market,” itself an exploration of the deeper meanings of sisterhood. She includes as well those works that display female antagonism, the other side of the coin. It is also in this chapter that she introduces “muteness” as an active component of Rossetti’s poetry: it is something that is concrete, as in the sisters’ loss of speech in “Goblin Market,” and also a device that Rossetti uses in various forms throughout her works — as often as not, it is the poet who is mute.
“Influence and Restraint: Victorian Woman Poets and the Rossettis” treats the influence of other noted Victorian woman poets, particularly Felicia Hemans and, more importantly, Letitia Elizabeth Landon. There is also an examination of the pre-Raphaelite tendency toward joint artistic efforts, particularly the role of her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as home-grown critic and editor. Interestingly enough, little is said about possible influences by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Rossetti’s playfulness is examined in “Nonsense and Wisdom of Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book.” Hassett notes the contrast of Rossetti’s approach to poetry for children with that of most of her contemporaries. The nineteenth century was very big on blatantly didactic literature for children, as evidenced, for example, Hans Christian Andersen’s early fairy tales. Rossetti’s approach is radically different, and calls to mind the children’s poems of Theodore Roethke, with their air of delighted nonsense: “If a pig wore a wig,/What could we say?/Treat him as a gentleman,/And say “Good day.” Frankly, if I were about five years old, I’d just eat that up. Hassett points out the underpinnings of this kind of playfulness, a matter of proximal syntactic logic, surreal images, and vivid special effects in rhyme, rhythm and stanza shape.
The sonnet enjoyed a vogue in the nineteenth century, most notably in the work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. “Ambitious Triangles: Rossetti and the Sonnet Tradition” places Rossetti firmly in this context, linking her not only to Browning but to Dante and Petrarch.
“Rossetti’s Finale: The Face of the Deep and Verses” returns to Rossetti’s concern with wordlessness and her wide range in an investigation of the poet’s reaction to the untimely death of Dante Gabriel as exemplified in her last two collections.
As might be gleaned from this very brief summary, this is a technical and scholarly approach to Rossetti’s work. While absorbing and often illuminating, it is painstakingly detailed, which sometimes tends to work against it for the non-specialist reader. It really is necessary that one be familiar with Rossetti’s works, or have a collected works close to hand. While Hassett quotes Rossetti extensively, these are microscopic views that cannot give a sense of the wholeness of the particular poem discussed. Briefly, while fascinating, it’s pretty heavy going. The end result is that I now have another poet to add to my reading list, which is not a bad thing at all, or wouldn’t be if the list weren’t already several pages long. And, I am now prepared to approach the poetry of Christina Rossetti with a much stronger understanding.
(University of Virginia Press, 2005)