The feared sexual potential of woman, the power deriving from her femininity, was transferred to the demonic 'world' figure of the prostitute, to be vilified and marginalised.
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The origins of Rossetti's demonic woman in 'The World' lie in the 'strange woman' of Proverbs, 40 who lures unwary young men to hell:. For the lips of a strange woman drop as an honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil: But her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps take hold on hell. Much of the imagery used in conveying loathing of fallen women is scriptural in origin, as Rossetti points out.
Ignoring the metaphorical status of the woman figures in Proverbs—the harlot wordly wisdom as opposed to the virtuous woman divine wisdom —the popular mind, through a literal misreading of the Old Testament , has forced on all women the application of prostitute or virtuous, domestic woman. In the absence of any direct statements from Rossetti herself it is difficult to form a precise picture of her transition to an understanding of her own spiritual predicament, but at this point it is helpful to consider what may be an unwitting testimony to her spiritual suffering, as it bears out the tensions in Maude and the anger of 'The World'.
During the late s or early s Rossetti was reading Maria's copy of Keble's The Christian Year and sketching rough illustrations to the poems. Although their execution is primitive they were not likely to have been thought of as material for publication these pictures show a marked continuity with her religious poetry of the time.
Around the title of Keble's poem for the Fourth Sunday in Advent Rossetti has drawn three female figures which show a contrasting attitude to the speaker of the poem. Where Keble's speaker strives in vain to hear from nature 'What to her own she deigns to tell', Rossetti's women, 'nature's own', already hear, see and, in the case of the central figure who is painting another woman or child, re-image. In later illustrations, however, configurations occur which depict in a most literal way the breaking down of continuity between women and the divine.
The flood of hope which lights up the conclusion of Keble's poem in his reference to the loving relationship between Christ and His Father is absent from Rossetti's illustration, suggesting the exclusion of a daughter. More disturbing still is her illustration of Keble's 'Fifth Sunday after Epiphany'. She fixes on a few words of the epigraph from Isaiah 'your iniquities have separated between you and your God', ignoring the comforting message of Keble's poem which promises salvation for those who reject the world, drawing instead a grotesque Medusa figure with a serpent's tail, obscuring the body of Christ on the cross.
Three female figures surround the cross in attitudes of supplication, withdrawal and death, and although an unshaded area around the cross indicates that the saviour is still there, the monstrous figure stands as a barrier between the dying women and Christ. The illustration is provoking in its literal depiction of women's spiritual despair, and the young Rossetti has captured the essence of Victorian notions of sin centred on a prostitute's degradation, in her serpent-like female figure.
Without a language which links them directly to God, women have had to accept that their relationship with the divine is mediated by the male religious consciousness and its interpretation of femaleness.
The women figures are dying because they are denied direct access to the saving light of the cross. One of Rossetti's poems of January , 'Shut Out', conveys in words the import of the illustration, that women have been denied spiritual tokens which allow them to identify with the divine:. Bewildered by the loss of the garden of Eden and longing for her home, Eve is devastated when her request for a token from it is refused, and as punishment for her request she is denied even the glimpse she had. The original title of the poem, 'What happened to me', suggests the importance of the poem to Rossetti herself, and helps us understand why, in her later poems, she needs to seek out images of womankind which can re-establish the links between Eve and her garden.
The composition of 'Shut Out', perhaps in its unequivocal recognition of her spiritual need, enabled Rossetti to move forward and, by the end of , she had 'discovered' the powerful figure of wisdom from the Book of Proverbs, the counterpart to the despised prostitute metaphor of the 'strange woman'. In her long poem 'The Lowest Room' she reconsiders her options, depicting on the one hand the dwindling femininity of the woman who aspires to a 'male' conception of God, but on the other recognising the potential for female spiritual empowerment represented by the figure of wisdom.
With her development of the latter she began to reclaim the feminine in an emerging ideal of woman's spirituality which looks forward to Goblin Market and beyond. The two sisters in 'The Lowest Room', who are engaged in an argument about the merits of the age of Homer, support two contrasting theological positions. The preacher of Ecclesiastes with his 'vanity of vanities' informs the thinking of the older sister, who longs for a life of passion, of achievement in the male world, where she can show her mental and spiritual strength.
She renounces the common things of the world, refusing to participate in the activities of her sister, who during the conversation is engaged in embroidery, and agonises because she cannot relive the heroic 'golden days' of Homer. Thwarted in her desire, she resorts to a martyrdom of her own, embracing renunciation and defending her position by quoting the preacher of Ecclesiastes:. Taking our critical and theological bearings from a poem like 'A Testimony', we see that by introducing the renunciation theme, the elder sister has allied herself with the sterility of a world which has rejected the feminine, her faded femininity the price she has to pay to exercise her mental and spiritual strength in the heroic martyrdom of Pusey's self-denial.
In terms of her own womanhood, however, she has lost her place in the spiritual order; she has lost the special way in which femininity reflects the face of God, the way woman in her active ability to create and nurture is able to link nature and the infinity of God. The elder sister is consequently no longer able to see God in His creation and can only look back, or forward to life after death, 'When all deep secrets shall be shown'. The figure of the elder sister, with her striking, passionate renunciation, has been seen as a model for Rossetti herself, the stance of passive resistance becoming the position of strength from which she subverts the conventions she sees around her.
There is no doubt that the position is strongly represented in her poetry, and certainly held a great deal of attraction for Rossetti the poet, but in her theology she recognises the spiritual sterility of the stance, and in 'The Lowest Room' we see her searching the scriptures for a figure who can better satisfy her spiritual need. For fear of enslavement by the 'strange woman' of Proverbs, High Church theology rejected the feminine identity of wisdom; Rossetti brings it back in the figure of the younger sister who is modelled on the virtuous woman of Prov.
The sensuously beautiful younger sister thrives as the elder sister declines; she is productive in the domestic sphere she embroiders as she speaks , she is in harmony with nature, her choice of flowers from the garden 'intuitively wise' p. Most important of all, she is closely linked to Christ. Her function in the poem is to rebuke her elder sister's attitude of martyrdom and her use of 'vanity of vanities' as a motto: 'One is here', the younger sister murmurs, 'Yea Greater than Solomon'.
The figure of the younger sister is the key to understanding the later Rossetti, the Rossetti of the Benedicite, the lover of wild flowers and spiders, reader of the amber and onyx stone. Here she is not writing a poem about Victorian domesticity or of domesticity versus participation in the male world of action and commerce; to interpret the domestic situation literally in her poetry would be to echo the Victorian misreading of Proverbs.
Rather, she is attempting to reconstruct a feminine God-language, by using metaphors, preferably scriptural ones, with which to debate woman's relationship with God. She has revalued the literal, certainly, as her 'fleshing out' in Victorian terms of the virtuous woman shows, but holds up the literal in a renewed configuration in order to restore the power of the metaphor. My rejection of the renunciatory female figure as the crucial symbol in the critical appreciation of Rossetti's work is, in effect, going against mainstream Rossetti criticism, which tends to see her in biographical and literary terms as an isolated, withdrawn and ultimately frustrated woman, locked into a stance of passionate destitution from which she is able only to subvert existing conventions.
Sandra Gubar's depiction of Rossetti as one of the 'great nineteenth-century women singers of renunciation as necessity's highest and noblest virtue', 43 which has to a certain extent inspired this critical tendency, although it has done much to bring Rossetti's work to the attention of feminists and to post-modern sensibility, has worked against it in that such an approach cannot profitably illuminate the Rossetti of the devotional works.
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Gubar attempts to make sense of Rossetti's theology in her discussion of Goblin Market and quite rightly centres on the role of Lizzie, who 'like a female saviour, negotiates with the Goblins as Christ did with Satan 44 and offers herself to be eaten and drunk in a womanly holy communion', but is unable to get past her disappointment that 'the redeemed Eden into which Lizzie leads Laura turns out to be a heaven of domesticity'. Gubar's legacy of disappointment has been a stumbling block to later critics who draw on her work. Rosenblum, as we have seen, has trouble seeing Rossetti's theology as anything more important than 'didacticism'.
She must not, however, be allowed to obscure the empowering figure of feminine wisdom, which gains strength in Rossetti's theology as she begins to participate in work for and amongst women. Here feminist theology can help in our understanding of Rossetti's work, by its reassertion of the spiritual authority of woman's activity in all spheres through the authority and dignity of wisdom. We learn that the domestic sphere is used in Proverbs as a central metaphor to present the political and economic centre of Israel after the loss of the monarchy.
Those poems which present us with a wisdom-figure can be interpreted with this reversal in mind. Furthermore, as we will see, Rossetti's development of this figure becomes the foundation of much of her later devotional writing.
Modern feminist critique of Christianity also provides a terminology with which to discuss the spiritual difficulties experienced by Victorian women in their encounter with the male bias of Christianity, especially in their relationship with a male redeemer. Rossetti's use of a domestic figuration therefore need not disappoint; rather, as we shall see, it indicates a revolutionary rejection of the dominant atonement theology of the Tractarians, in favour of a liberation christology in which the feminine becomes source of redemptive healing.
Before examining Goblin Market , however, it is worth examining a 'bridging' poem, one that links it to her earlier wisdom figures and possibly the last major poem she wrote before her voluntary work at the St. Mary Magdalene Penitentiary began in In 'The Lowest Room' the close link between the younger sister and Christ rests uneasily between an emerging idea of the sister having a Christ-like function herself the vine and the necessary secondary position she has to assume in marriage, despite the suggestion as in Maude that the husband represents the arrival of Christ as the fulfilment of wisdom.
In 'From House to Home', Rossetti attempts to solve this problem by conflating the figure of the redemptive sister and Christ and dismissing the male figure altogether, which suggests the poem as a link between Rossetti's early 'wisdom' figures and the entirely female representation of Christ in Goblin Market.
In a dream vision, the swooning female speaker sees the embodiment of feminine suffering as a woman sustained between earth and heaven, who strengthens her with an apocalyptic vision of heavenly rewards for her renunciation and suffering. The vision is strikingly portrayed and is the forerunner of some of Rossetti's most powerful devotional poetry, but as an answer to the need for a living and active spirituality is unsatisfying.
In order to reproduce the suffering of Christ in a female figure Rossetti has used the female martyr of her earlier poems, who, although able to wean the lost soul from earth-bound nature to God, is unable to re-establish contact with the goodness of the created world which she has left: the flowers, fruit, frogs and caterpillars which Rossetti loved.
The experience of Highgate was instrumental in drawing her away from the self-absorbed martyr figure, and restoring a wholeness to the poet's vision of feminine spirituality as a two-way bridge between the realities of everyday life in the world and God's kingdom. Rossetti's attention had been drawn to the plight of the prostitute in , and probably, together with the rest of the congregation of Christ Church, she followed with interest the purchasing and naming of the St. Mary Magdalene Penitentiary on Highgate Hill.
Burrows was one of the clergy on the management council of the Home and there was a constant appeal for money annual reports show a donation by William Rossetti in , 'perhaps paid on his sister's behalf' 52 and woman helpers. The emphasis at Highgate, as at the other London penitentiaries which were established in large numbers at this time, was on spiritual instruction and training in domestic work, 53 and although public opinion may have condemned the prostitute in abstract terms, the ideal of sisterhood runs through many appeals for assistance: 'that poor, weary, outwardly-hardened, sindebased creature—a victim to man's brutal requirements—is, in the sight of our most holy God, your sister'.
By the summer of she was closely involved in the work at Highgate, and continued until when failing health made it inadvisable. She was diagnosed as suffering from Graves' disease in We do not have an account by Rossetti herself of her penitentiary work, perhaps because discussion of their work by the sisters was actively discouraged, but we do have the testimony of a contemporary, J.
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Ellice Hopkins, an outspoken activist against moral lethargy in the Church of England in matters of woman's rights. Like Rossetti she found spiritual inspiration and fulfilment working at a penitentiary similar to Highgate. Her severe criticism of the Church and championing of fallen women give us an insight into the motivation of penitentiary sisters and in terms of Rossetti's poetic and spiritual development, provides a helpful context for the reading of Goblin Market as a manifestation of spiritual solidarity towards the inmates of Highgate penitentiary. Hopkins stresses the sacrality of the task of redeeming the prostitute.
Prostitution is a spiritual evil; furthermore, it is evil perpetrated by men upon women. Churches, she claims, should 'cease to look supinely on [women's] desecration … a deadliest evil' which destroys the true purpose of womanhood, the 'fountain of life, and love, and purity to the world'. On leaving the brothel and entering the penitentiary the prostitute would cross into a female-dominated sphere of spiritual regeneration through participating in a series of ritual domestic duties. By treating the redemption of prostitutes in this way we see Hopkins subverting traditional separate sphere ideology, 'by turning the home into a symbol and space for female sacrality which operates independently of the male sacred space—the church'.
Like Daly's 'communal phenomenon of sisterhood', in the woman-dominated penitentiary we see an alternative spiritual sphere to that of the Church.
The rescue-worker, operating within an exclusively female space, assumes the priestly function by re-enacting the resurrecting role of Christ. This climate of reassertion of female spirituality is the context in which Goblin Market should be read if its theology is to be understood. Such a context validates the conclusion of the poem, 'there is no friend like a sister', as a statement of female spiritual strength and empowerment, the spiritual power of female domestic ritual subverting the power of the Church, and the portrayal of a female Christ demolishing the gender exclusivity of the sacred.
No longer obscured by the overworked theme of 'hope deferred', the sisters' sacred space of female spirituality in Goblin Market may be seen as a position of strength, not one of capitulation to an inhibiting social reality. Also to be revised is the reading of Goblin Market as an affirmation of the Tractarian doctrine of renunciation, which mars the interpretation of both Marsh and D'Amico, who so ably place the poem in its Highgate context. D'Amico is slow in moving away from Pusey's condemnation of the flesh and consequently she interprets the poem as a warning against worldly pleasures and the 'impossibility of ever finding full satisfaction by attempting to satisfy the body'.
Marsh's interpretation is similar: 'By denying gratification, the ascetic soul triumphs over desire, and is no longer in thrall to the senses.