Christina Rossetti and her Contemporaries: Women and Discourse

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The Victorians saw poetry itself and its muses as feminine, making it doubly difficult for women to be authors of poems and so effectively silencing them . Christina Rossetti's contemporary female poets placed themselves outside of the sphere of male poetry by forging a unique discourse of their own from within the patriarchal form, but they were also bound by the assumptions and the expectations of the time. This gendering of poetry often trivialised women's writing, as poetry was 'too high and great' for women. Women poets were therefore forced to reach beyond these barriers, and in effect manipulate one of the forms of their own suppression and repression. Christina Rossetti, Alice Meynell, Katherine Tynan and Elizabeth Barrett Browning dedicated poems to one another in a uniquely female dialogue. Many women wrote poetry despite the many obstacles, and anthologies and journals of women's poetry encouraged a distinctive conversation between female poets. Isobel Armstrong also claims women used 'expressive' language to represent their emotions and experiences, and the representational symbols on the page were paradoxically both a means of expression and part of the forces of repression. She proposes that poetry involves the 'movement outwards, the breaking of barriers'.

Christina Rossetti entered into poetic conversations with her contemporaries, including the poem 'L.E.L' which was written in response to Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem 'L.E.L's Last Question'. Browning was often critical of her contemporaries, criticising women 'versifiers' rather than 'true poets', and the poem describes the plaintive cries of a lonely but self-absorbed woman who wrote ‘one tune of love’. Barrett Browning's L.E.L calls to her friends from 'across the waves' with the constant wistful refrain at the end of each stanza 'Do you think of me as I think of you?'. Browning argues that L.E.L should have asked 'Do you praise me, O my land?' concentrating externally rather than looking to her 'inward sense'. Christina Rossetti's poem offers a more sympathetic view as her struggles with her own temperament and depressions create a deeper understanding. Christina claimed that Browning would have been a better poet had she been less contented and 'happy'; a euphemism for being married Christina's poem 'L.E.L' describes a woman laughing in 'sport and jest' in public rooms, but yet in 'solitary rooms' she turns her 'face in silence to the wall'.

The speaker sees that others 'all love, are loved' and 'play the pleasant parts'. They cannot guess the depth of her loneliness and misery, or that her heart 'was breaking for a little love'. Christina's narration changes to the first person in the second stanza, as she empathises deeply with the dead poet's emotions and the way they relate to her own troubled emotions and experiences.

The poetic differences between Christina Rossetti and Browning are emphasised by the contrasting emotions and images in Browning's poem. Browning concentrates on the external signs of death and the 'shadow' on L.E.L's 'sepulchre', and there is implicit criticism of L.E.L's need for love and compassion. Browning's lack of sentimentality is partly due to her marital contentment, which also meant that she did not have to sacrifice her creative impulses within the constraints of the female sphere. Christina Rossetti understood L.E.L's essential sadness, while Browning's poem shows impatience with the woman who failed to cope alone, or wait for her friends to find their 'answering breath' across the 'mocking ocean'. Browning uses aspects of male rationality to create a new form of female expression.

Katherine Tynan was a 'lyric poet' who wrote close to the 'heart of nature'; a convention considered appropriate for women. Tynan's poem 'Maternity' eulogises the joys of motherhood, ignoring the potential difficulties and struggles that can accompany childbirth and child-rearing. The poem has two conventional stanzas of similar length, although the end rhymes are discordant, and there is frequent use of eye-rhyme and assonance. Tynan focuses on mother's milk, as 'her body' is the child's 'food' evoking the link between the parasitic needs of the child. The mother yields her child 'precious milk and food' and her body produces 'life' not 'death'. Motherhood is seen as a 'sacred' state as the female body is the source of birth and continuing life, while motherhood is seen as an acceptable form of creative release. The visceral elements of the first stanza give way to emotional and abstract images in the second stanza. Tynan suggests that this maternal love renews her 'heart' which expands to make room for 'all earth's hapless brood'. The discordant rhyme and physicality of the earlier stanza gives way in the final two lines to a traditional Victorian image of motherhood, as the speaker has a 'broken heart' which 'wounds' for all 'earth's hurt children'.

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Christina Rossetti's 'Life and Death' highlights similar concepts, but there is little sentimental satisfaction to the poem. The speaker claims 'life is not sweet', while the caesura defines the importance of 'one day' when things will change for the better. The speaker looks forward to death, as it will be 'sweet/To shut our eyes and die'. The traditional beauty of nature has no impact, including the 'wild flowers', 'flitting butterfly' and 'happy lark'. Christina claims that one day 'it will be good/To die, then live again' in the wonder of heaven. Meanwhile she 'yearns to sleep' so that the 'shrunk leaves' of autumn and death no longer affect her. She sees nothing but the 'dead refuse stubble clothe the plain' and she desires to be 'asleep' in soulsleep, avoiding the 'risk' and the 'pain'. Both Tynan and Rossetti highlight the more brutal aspects of nature and humanity, including the difficult concepts of life and death. Christina focuses on an introspective view of the bleakness of life which can only be resolved through soulsleep and death. Tynan embraces the traditional female sphere and subverts it to a degree, while Christina's religious conviction allows her to discuss difficult concepts without necessarily resorting to traditional female imagery.

Alice Meynell was another popular poet who participated in the poetic dialogue between the women. Her work showed 'emotion' and 'reflection' in 'balanced harmony'; important attributes for a Victorian woman poet. Her poem 'Song' is an elusive and intensely metaphorical poem, written in four stanzas with regular lines and end-rhymes. Reference to water and tides suggests a deep range of conflicting female emotions, as the 'tide doth roll' and 'floods the caves', while the depth of love 'comes filling with happy waves' which opens the 'sea-shore' of the 'soul'. The second stanza describes secret hidden places 'out of sight' which 'constrains in dim embraces' as hidden and repressed feelings and emotions are allowed to surface, and the poetic language allows the rhythms of the 'repressed semiotic' to emerge. The speaker has no 'secrets' to be kept, while the limitless expanse of the boundless ocean 'fills' all with Christ's love.

Christina Rossetti uses different imagery to express the depth of faith and love. In 'Heaven Overarches' she suggests that the vast expanse of sea and sky encompasses the 'earth sadness and sea-bitterness'. Heaven reaches over all and the speaker imagines a time when there is 'no more sea' or barren wilderness' as she slips into the oblivion and the unity of spirit and identity in soulsleep. She urges the reader to 'look up with me until we see/The day break and the shadows flee'. She suggests that the pains and frustrations of the day will not matter, as 'tomorrow' offers redemption. Both poems use expansive metaphors to suggest limitless faith and God's love, but Alice Meynell's poem is more formally and conventionally organised with dense metaphors and condensed language. Christina in contrast, uses a variety of beautiful and simple metaphors to emphasise feeling, and the descriptive and alliterative language highlights her attachment to God's love and the depth of emotion that it inspires. Both use the traditional imagery of sea and sky, but employ different conventions to inspire emotions and meaning.

Meynell's sonnet 'Renouncement' focuses on love and longing and refers to God as a dream-like and illicit lover. Like many of her contemporaries, she refers to Christ as a lover to whom she wants to escape. Meynell claims that she must not think of the 'love of thee' in 'blue Heaven's delight'. She suggests that daydreaming of divine love is to be avoided, but that it can also be voiced. She asserts that 'thoughts of thee wait hidden' and she must 'stop short of thee the whole day long'. The sestet evokes the delight of 'sleep' and the 'night' which allows all 'bonds' to 'lose apart'. The speaker embraces the 'first dream' as she runs and is 'gathered to thy heart'.

Christina Rossetti also refers explicitly to her 'Heavenly Lover' in the poem 'Til To-Morrow'. She speaks of 'longing and desire', wishing 'farewell' to 'all things that die and fail and tire'. The second stanza is irregular in length, drawing direct attention to the strong emotions expressed. She dismisses 'youth and useless pleasure' while the alliterative 'glow-worms' and 'gleaming' and repeated end-rhymes highlight the density of expression. The alliteration continues as she says 'farewell to all shows that fade', expressing her 'joy' in 'tomorrow' when she will see heaven 'glowing'. Both poems address Christ as a lover through the use of religious imagery, in a way that would not have been acceptable to had they been examining earthly love. The religious genre allows them to move beyond the rigid structure of the female sphere, and to speak to one another in dream-like and sensuous states.

The act of writing allowed women's voices to be heard and provided them with a public forum. Christina Rossetti's individual use of metaphor, alliteration and the doubling of ideas and images provide a unique type of discourse that reflects Rossetti's fractured sense of identity and her concerns and experiences. Meynell and Tynan use different images and concepts to focus on the female aspects of maternity and faith which were an acceptable source of discussion for women writers. Elizabeth Barrett Browning harnessed male rationality and logic in her work in order to manipulate the genre and top move beyond the forces of female suppression. The women were concerned primarily with their own discourse and ideas which effectively removed them from competing within the male sphere. They manipulated and attempted to dominate the instruments of their repression in different ways, in order to express their individual desires and drives through poetic language.

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