Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Woolf on Rossetti - "I Am Christina Rossetti"

One-ninth of the way through Algernon Swinburne’s six-volumes of collected letters, in 1866, he has not even mentioned Christina Rossetti.  She had published two outstanding books at this point, and Swinburne was an obsessive reader of poetry as well as close friends with her brothers.

In Swinburne’s defense, 1) many letters are lost, 2) at the point I have reached he is amply occupied with the horrified critical reaction to his own blasphemous and obscene book, and also his prodigious alcoholism, and 3), later, although I do not know when, he wrote about Rossetti that “I have always thought that nothing more glorious in poetry has ever been written” and that a particular poem, one I have not read, “was touched as with the fire and bathed as in the light of sunbeams, tuned as to chords and cadences of refluent sea-music beyond reach of harp and organ, large echoes of the serene and sonorous tides of heaven.”

Swinburne is as bad as the folks who write blurbs for novels today.  I found this bee-yoo-tee in Virginia Woolf’s 1930 essay “’I Am Christina Rossetti.’”  Woolf singles out that quote, I am afraid, to mock Swinburne, along with two lesser critics.  “Very little of value has been said about poetry since the world began,” writes Woolf, as if she were familiar with Wuthering Expectations.

Woolf proceeds to follow her own advice and say little, devoting four of her seven pages to a fragmented biography of Rossetti.  At what is this novelist better than fragmented biography?

… in reality she dwelt in some curious region where the spirit strives towards an unseen God – in her case, a dark God, a harsh God – a God who decreed that all the pleasures of the world were hateful to Him.  The theatre was hateful, the opera was hateful, nakedness was hateful – when her friend Miss Thompson painted naked figures in her pictures she had to tell Christina they were fairies, but Christina saw through the imposture…  [Her belief] taught her that chess was wrong, but that whist and cribbage did not matter.

A novel about Christina Rossetti would do well to be careful about making her too sympathetic.  By “do well” I of course mean “do badly”; such a novel would likely do badly and be remaindered quickly.

Woolf also says a bit of value about Rossetti’s poetry, just a little, emphasizing her musicality and sharp eye, as when she points out these marvelous lizards:

My heath lay farther off, where lizards lived
    In strange metallic mail, just spied and gone;
Like darted lightnings here and there perceived
        But no where dwelt upon.  (“From House to Home”)

I have now quoted almost as many lines of Rossetti as Woolf did.  Her criticism method is metaphor.  “Death, oblivion, and rest lap round your songs with their dark wave,” for example.  The piece ends with an apocalyptic fantasy of an underwater London – now that was a surprise.  Rossetti will still be read, even then, that is Woolf’s point.

“’I Am Christina Rossetti’” was published a year after A Room of One’s Own.  It would make a pleasing and useful appendix to that book.


  1. I'm just now catching up to your Rosetti posts, backwards, but it's nice to start with this one since it comes with the added bonuses of Swinburne and Woolf. I'll have to look up that Woolf essay. Those lizard lines really are marvelous. A walk I took down one of Los Angeles' long hill stairways last week scattered dozens of sunning lizards - "darted lightenings""just spied and gone."

  2. What great lines about the lizards. I am pretty sure I have not read this Woolf essay. Now I have to go look it up!

  3. Geez, all I had to do was turn the page. Letter 152 from Swinburne to William Rossetti, Oct. 13, 1866:

    "I have read (did I say it before?) your sister's poem in M'Millan with great admiration - by far the best bit of English terza rima I know."

    The poem is "By the Waters of Babylon," and as perfect terza rima it is too hard to excerpt.

    The Woolf essay is in The Second Common Reader. Forgot to mention that. The portrait or sketch or whatever you want to call it is excellent, of course.

    I had noticed the lizard myself, I swear, so it was nice to have Woolf validate my opinion.