April 27: Christina Rossetti, Poet, 1894

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

Christina Rosetti, among the more important poets of the nineteenth century, was born in 1830 to a professor and his devout, evangelical wife. Her eldest sister, Maria, entered an Anglican convent and her poet-painter brother, Dante, was a leading figure in the Pre-Raphaelite movement of the nineteenth century. She suffered from poor health most of her life, being diagnosed variously with tuberculosis or angina and led a retiring, somewhat cloistered life. In spite of this she produced an enormous quantity of verse and was in lively and ongoing conversation with members of Dante’s “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.” She died of cancer in 1884.

Mid-nineteenth century England, during the Industrial Revolution and the establishment of the British Empire, experienced enormous political and cultural change and social displacement. The old, agrarian society was being swept away by the movement to cities and the creation of a new middle class. Many people, even those who had greatly benefitted from these changes, were revolted by the ugliness and misery that attended urban slums and abandoned rural areas alike. One response was a nostalgic attempt to recover England’s mythic and legendary past. This produced a rather romantic interest in the Medieval. “Gothic,” originally a derogatory term meaning rude or barbaric, became both a term of approval and a style of architecture and decoration that swept the country.

The Tractarian or Oxford Movement shared these concerns and protested against modernity by seeking a recovery of much of the doctrine and sacramental practice of the Medieval Church. Tractarian emphasis on the sacramental taught that the ordinary things of nature: water, oil, bread and wine were the means of God’s grace and indeed God’s presence. They also taught that a life of personal holiness dedicated to the service of others is the road to union with Christ.

Unlike some of the Pre-Raphaelites with whom she was in relationship, Rosetti embraced Christian faith and practice. Over five hundred of her poems were devotional. They were related to the liturgy, to the feasts and fasts of the liturgical year, and to biblical “dialogues” with Christ.

Collects

I  O God, whom heaven cannot hold, who didst inspire Christina Rossetti to express the mystery of the Incarnation through her poems: Help us to follow her example in giving our hearts to Christ, who is love; and who is alive and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting.  Amen.

II  O God, whom heaven cannot hold, you inspired Christina Rossetti to express the mystery of the Incarnation through her poems: Help us to follow her example in giving our hearts to Christ, who is love; and who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting.  Amen.

Lessons

Exodus 3:1–6

Revelation 21:1–4

Matthew 6:19–23

Psalm 84

Preface of the Incarnation

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

* * *

We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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25 Responses to April 27: Christina Rossetti, Poet, 1894

  1. John Morrell says:

    A fitting addition to the calendar.

    In first paragraph, “1884” should be “1894.”

    In the second paragraph, change “establishment” to “enlargement.” (The Empire had been “established” over 200 years earlier.)

    In the last paragraph change “some of the Pre-Raphaelites with whom she was in relationship” to “some of her Pre-Raphaelites friends.” (“Relationship” may have unintended implications.)

    Perhaps some of her more famous Christian poems (e.g., “In the Bleak Midwinter,” “Love Came Down at Christmas”) might be identified by name.

  2. Bill Petersen says:

    I agree with John Morell and say further that the two poems he mentions ought to be referenced as hymns in TEC’s hymnal, one of which is (“In the bleak midwinter” # 112 is a popular, the other, “Love came down at Christmas,” is found at H82 # 84.

  3. Cynthia Gilliatt says:

    I would drop or considerably shorten the paragraph about the Tractariens, who are covered elsewhere, and add as suggested above references to the two hymns and perhaps titles of some of her other poems.
    Also agree w/comment on “relationship,’ especially given the relationships engaged in by other of the pre-Raphaelites.

  4. Leonel L. Mitchell says:

    I would never have thought of adding Christina Rosetti to the calendar. She was a significant person in rthe culture of the 19th century, but she doesn’t fit my expectations for a saint, although your bio makes out a case and I’m willing to go along, at least for now.

  5. Mark Delcuze says:

    Anyone know why this date was chosen?

  6. Richard H Lewis says:

    Not certain that this is a saintly add. Where is the evidence other than 2 poems that have been set to
    music and added to Hymnal 82 ? I find the write up about the Oxford Movement to be a treatment with
    bias and a bit of put down in it (reactionary is the desciptor that is not used but which seems to under-
    gird much of the writing). Her reclusiveness, given her very poor health, has led to at least one study
    linking her to Emily Dickinson (based on behaviors and being poets ?). Note that G Holst did the tune
    for “Bleak Mid-Winter”, and he also did a sympohny call The Planets. Her sister, Maria, went to the Com-
    munity of All Saints (Anglican) in the 1870’s and died as a member of the Order.

  7. John LaVoe says:

    I count 10 lines of this narrative as being about Christina Rosetti, including family background and health matters, and fully 15 lines presumably about background. The balance seems skewed. My impression was that what was in fact commemorated (via the 15 lines) was something other than Rosetti, and that she was basically used for the sake of that something else. The “background” didn’t support the portrait of the Christian person presented here.
    .
    All of paragraphs 2 and 3 (and a sentence fragment from 4) are the ones I felt were not directly about her, and more to the point, not elucidating of the segment that WAS about her. I quote for ease of reference of those who would disagree:
    .
    (Para 2): “Mid-nineteenth century England, during the Industrial Revolution and the establishment of the British Empire, experienced enormous political and cultural change and social displacement. The old, agrarian society was being swept away by the movement to cities and the creation of a new middle class. Many people, even those who had greatly benefitted from these changes, were revolted by the ugliness and misery that attended urban slums and abandoned rural areas alike. One response was a nostalgic attempt to recover England’s mythic and legendary past. This produced a rather romantic interest in the Medieval. “Gothic,” originally a derogatory term meaning rude or barbaric, became both a term of approval and a style of architecture and decoration that swept the country.”
    .
    (Para 3): “The Tractarian or Oxford Movement shared these concerns and protested against modernity by seeking a recovery of much of the doctrine and sacramental practice of the Medieval Church. Tractarian emphasis on the sacramental taught that the ordinary things of nature: water, oil, bread and wine were the means of God’s grace and indeed God’s presence. They also taught that a life of personal holiness dedicated to the service of others is the road to union with Christ.
    .
    (Fragment): “Unlike some of the Pre-Raphaelites with whom she was in relationship,”
    .
    That she was a remarkable poet is unquestionable, and her contributions of devotional verse are greatly prized. What I question is the adequacy of what this particular narrative imparts about the person she was and the holiness that was hers. The bulk of ancillary “background” puts me off. The remaining (directly applicable) part of the narrative is as follows. I think it could be improved in content as well as in presentation:
    .
    “Christina Rosetti, among the more important poets of the nineteenth century, was born in 1830 to a professor and his devout, evangelical wife. Her eldest sister, Maria, entered an Anglican convent and her poet-painter brother, Dante, was a leading figure in the Pre-Raphaelite movement of the nineteenth century. She suffered from poor health most of her life, being diagnosed variously with tuberculosis or angina and led a retiring, somewhat cloistered life. In spite of this she produced an enormous quantity of verse and was in lively and ongoing conversation with members of Dante’s “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.” She died of cancer in 1884. Rosetti embraced Christian faith and practice. Over five hundred of her poems were devotional. They were related to the liturgy, to the feasts and fasts of the liturgical year, and to biblical “dialogues” with Christ.”

    • John LaVoe says:

      Where I wrote that “I think it could be improved in content as well as in presentation,” I really meant it needs serious reworking before I could regard it as an inspiring enough commemoration to include in HWHM. That’s not a rejection of Rosetti, it’s a comment on the proposed draft.

      • John Morrell says:

        John, excellent revision. The date of her death needs to be changed to 1894. (HWHM got it right in the headline, wrong in the text.) I would add a last sentence:

        The Hymnal 1982 contains two of her poems: “Love Came Down at Christmas”; and “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

  8. John LaVoe says:

    John Morrell – Thanks, but I didn’t revise. I only cut-and-pasted first & last paragraphs (the 10 lines about her) and the same with paragraphs 2&3 (the 15 lines not about her) — with that one fragment thrown in. YOUR observations were the good ones! I just did “general maintenance.” I felt “fine tuning” (edits, comments on propers) would be pointless without a revised narrative. Your comments should be useful right off the bat. But thanks! It’s good to be on here with you. -JFL

  9. Michael Hartney says:

    This commemoration is for Trial Use. All elements (Title, Collect, Lections, and Proper Preface) are new.

  10. Michael Hartney says:

    Subtitle. Did she die in 1884 or 1894?
    Readings. This seems an odd group. The burning bush and light dark? I guess this is related to her poem ‘In the bleak mid winter’?
    Proper Preface of the Incarnation. Again, related to ‘In the bleak mid winter’. [Why else use a Christmas Proper Preface?] But what the Proper Preface really needs to be is a new one for regular folk.

  11. Celinda Scott says:

    Wow, de gustibus. I loved all the background material. Had never particularly liked the Pre-Raphaelites, too ethereal for my taste, but seen as a reaction to the coarseness of the day I can appreciate them. I also liked the attention called to the Oxford Movement as a similar reaction. Not a particular fan of that movement, but it was helpful to see one view of its context. I’d like to know who wrote the bio. it paints–for me–the picture of a saintly person: saintly in that she helped make her environment more Christian–she certainly enriched it– through all the things she did. Like hymn writers and preachers, she strengthened peoples’ faith.

  12. Steve Lusk says:

    The write-up leaves me feeling a bit like St. Peter in Kipling’s “Tomlinson”:

    And Peter twirled the jangling Keys in weariness and wrath.
    “Ye have writ of her family, her times, and her friends,” he said, “and the tale is yet to run:
    “By the worth of the paper you’ve quite filled up, give answer—what ha’ she done?”

    If we can’t come up with three paragraphs about Rossetti’s own life and Christian witness, apart from a mere catalogue of her hymns, she probably doesn’t rate an individual place in the calendar. That’s why we have festivals like All Saints, All Faithful Departed, and (given her musical connection) St. Cecilia’s Day.
    I also have to ask why Rossetti and not Cecil Frances Alexander?
    They’re almost exact contemporaries: 1830-1894 vs. 1818-1895.
    Both wrote beloved hymns: Rossetti’s “In the bleak midwinter” and “Love came down at Christmas” vs. Alexander’s “All things bright and beautiful” (#405), “Once in royal David’s city” (#102), and her translation of St. Patrick’s Breastplate (#370).
    Both were impeccably Tractarian in their liturgical preferences (no post-William Wilberforce Evangelicals need apply for places in our Calendar!).
    And both actually did devote themselves to “a life of personal holiness dedicated to the service of others,” Rossetti by working with “fallen women” (which I know only thanks to Wikipedia – it should be in HWHM) and Alexander by founding a school the deaf and the Girls’ Friendly Society in Londonderry. Alexander was a charter associate of the GFS in Ireland, and she used the proceeds from her writing to fund her school and other charitable projects.
    Alexander founded (and funded) institutions that live on, but Rossetti might still get an edge for the various physical ailments she had to overcome. But that plus is offset by all those engagements called off at the last moment and the general creepiness of Goblin Market and Other Poems.

  13. Celinda Scott says:

    Steve–Sam Shoemaker was a 20th century Evangelical, and he’s in the calendar.

  14. Pingback: Christina Rossetti « Transformed By Hope

  15. Philip Wainwright says:

    With no full agreement about suitability for inclusion, and a bio that suggests that Rosetti is of most interest to only one element of the church’s theological breadth, and that an element that is already better represented than most others, this seems like a good opportunity to give some other holy person a day of their own. Or even add a post-Wilberforce Evangelical like J C Ryle.

  16. Celinda Scott says:

    I wondered if J.C. Ryle were part of the “muscular Christianity” movement and found this:

    “One of JC Ryle’s beliefs was that we needed a more muscular form of Christianity. He was a bishop in the Anglican church (modern day Episcopal). The term muscular Christianity was coined in the 19th century as a reaction to the effeminate leanings of the Anglican church in the 1800’s. Men were dropping out of church life. The church became more and more irrelevant to men. There are similar problems and conversation in the church today.

    Ryle believed that we needed a more strenous form of Christianity and that men needed to step up and be tough/tender leaders. Tough exterior with tender hearts. Ryle’s belief was that we needed to train our bodies physically so that we could serve God with vitality; protect the weak; defend what is true and subdue the earth as stewards of God’s resources.

    The muscular Christianity movement spawned many good things- including the YMCA and a sport that I love- basketball. I have been meditating on the need in my own life to be tough and to instill that toughness into my son and daughter. We need tough men and women who will live and die by convictions and values but who also have the humility to be broken and shaped by a transforming God. “

    • Philip Wainwright says:

      I’ve never heard any of that about Ryle, and that wasn’t my reason for suggesting him. This sounds much more like Charles Kingsley or Dr Arnold. See October 9, W T Grenfell. I shall have to explore this side of Ryle (once this HWHM year is over!).

  17. John Morrell says:

    I think Rossetti’s problem is that the bio is poorly written, containing much extraneous matter (about the industrial revolution, the British Empire and the Gothic revival), and omitting important stuff (such as her two famous poems in The Hymnal). Her personal preferences may have been Puseyite, but I think her poetry is of great appeal to Christians of all stripes, and I believe her inclusion in the calendar is appropriate.

    That being said, J.C. Ryle is worthy of inclusion as well.

  18. Suzanne Sauter says:

    I was thinking that Cecil Frances Humphreys Alexander was included in the trial use commemorations but when I checked the index of HWHM I see that she is not. I guess that she had been mentioned several times when discussing hymn writers such as John Mason Neale who is already included in the calendar, Catherine Winkworth (translator) who is proposed for inclusion, Isaac Watts (hymnwriter) who is also proposed for inclusion that I thought she was. Certainly she would be a worthy inclusion in the calendar and her death date, October 12, is not taken.

    Christina Rossetti did not immediately come to mind as a person for inclusion in the calendar. I suspect that reflects my education because Miss Rossetti was out of fashion in the late 1960s. I can only concur with what has been said already.
    1. The bio as written is unbalanced with too much information about the Oxford Movement and the Tractarians, the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and the English Industrial Revolution. There is much too little about Miss Rossetti’s faith and how it informed her life and her writings.
    2. If much is going to be made about her medical problems, two items which are very significant are omitted. Miss Rossetti had Graves’ Disease (autoimmune hyperthyroidism) which was very serious and probably explained many of her symptoms including her heart problems. Also a couple of the photographic portraits of Miss Rossetti suggest that she may have suffered from the protruding eyes which can be seen with Grave’s Disease as well as an enlarged thyroid gland in her neck. There was no treatment in the 19th century. Miss Rossetti had breast cancer and that was the cause of her death in 1894 (not 1884 as already noted).
    3. It is not clear why a date in April was chosen for her since her birth date was December 5th and her death date was December 29th.

  19. Nigel Renton says:

    Her last name is twice mis-spelled in the bio, with only on “s”. The year of her death is shown in the bio as “1893”; other sources show the year given in the subtitle.

    Line 2, first paragraph: add “London on December 6,” after “in”.

    Line 10, first paragraph: substitute “London on December 29, 1894” for “1884”.

  20. John LaVoe says:

    Rossetti

    When you look at the narrative, excluding ancillary material, we have a religious mother, a sister as an Anglican nun; nothing from HWHM indicating the Pre-Raphaelites as a religious significance for CR; poor health, a retiring/cloistered life, and sadly, terminal cancer.
    This is legitimate background, not grounds for inclusion.

    She “embraced Christian faith and practice” – and wrote over 500 devotional poems. (That they touched on liturgy, liturgical year, and “dialogues” with Christ – doesn’t add to the 500, it sorts them.) That’s “it”!

    The collect says God inspired her to express the incarnation in her poems, and asks help “giving our hearts to Christ” after her example. I don’t see what her strong example would be. (No “so that” element.) As a collect it’s the flimsiest, least credible so far. The narrative combined with the collect don’t add up.

    If we look at the scripture selections inductively, trying to identify what the commemoration is emphasizing by understand their emphasis, we have a powerful theophany (with a sense of Moses’ approaching God closely) in Exodus; a hymn celebrating God’s temple presence (and the privilege of being near him) in the psalm; again, an eschatological celebration of God’s coming to dwell in nearness to people (in Revelation); and a gospel passage of fulfillment versus futility, light and dark, heavenly treasure gained versus earth-bound waste of possible blessing lost. To me, this suggests theological intimacy, i.e., laying out fullness with God as contrasted to the tragic loss of life’s eternal communion and worth. The readings fit together quite beautifully (I’d extend the Revelation passage a bit) – but I don’t see the narrative and collect as being on track with the readings (or the readings congruent/resonant with the narrative and collect).
    .
    I have to conclude that the proposed commemoration has failed to make its case for CR’s inclusion in the calendar — that, as presented herein, she does not strongly stand out as an inspiring example of holiness and baptismal life. She may have been one – I’m not saying SHE failed on that score. WE failed to make the case here. We either need to do this work over (better), or set it aside until (and unless) it can be sufficiently presented.

  21. Pingback: April 27 – Christina Rossetti : St. Paul's Episcopal Church

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