Whispers from a Secret Life – The poetry of Christina Rossetti

Christina RossettiSome have suggested that the work of Christina Rossetti revolves around a secret, which she was either unwilling or unable to disclose (D’Amico, 173). Whether or not this is true, the usefulness of viewing her poetry as ‘whispers from a secret life’ is debatable because we no longer place emphasis on authorial intent.

But this was not the case when Rossetti was writing. Indeed, while ‘psychoanalysing’ an author might, today, be considered to commit the ‘sin’ of intentional fallacy, the study of an artist’s life to explain her work – and vice versa – was an established practice during Rossetti’s lifetime (Wright, 34).

This essay is intended as a brief ‘psychobiography’ through which to explore facets of Rossetti’s ‘secret’ as represented through several of her poems. In no way, however, am I trying to prove or disprove that a secret existed. Even if that were possible, I agree with Ms D’Amico (176) that attempting to explain Rossetti’s poetry through a single secret does not allow her to be the complex, fully-rounded poet that she undoubtedly was. I do believe, however, that this approach shines an interesting light on Rossetti as a person.

Biographers note that when young, Rossetti was passionate and wilful. She had more than the usual difficulties conquering her childish desires (Marsh, 13). Hence I have chosen to use classical Freudian (Id-Psychology based) Literary Criticism which asserts that all art and literature fulfils some repressed infantile desire of its creator much in the same way as do dreams (Wright, 28). Even though contemporary literary criticism often frowns on Freud’s patriarchal (phallas-centred) approach, I suggest it is appropriate for Rossetti who not only lived in a very patriarchal society, but also in a patriarchal household. Further, although literature is not the same as dreams in the sense that an author retains significant control over representation of her ‘repressed reality’, in Freudian terms this does not alter the fact that (1) such repression exists and (2) that it will find expression (Wright, 27).

In the Freudian context, this almost always relates to the Oedipal complex. A young girl like Rossetti, once bound to her mother through homosexual desire, must turn that desire toward father and the wish for his baby (Blass and Simon, 169). Perhaps such a desire would give rise to secrecy in a such a passionate, yet religious, young girl like Rossetti? In any event, to resolve her complex, the young girl must turn away from father back to mother with whom she must identify. This is key to successful integratation into society as a wife and mother in her own right (Eagleton, 135).

Freudian psychoanalytic theory purports that tension exists between these infantile desires and their expression. Freudian (Id-Psychology based) Literary Criticism claims this tension is channelled (consciously or not) by an author into her work (Wright, 18). Hence in investigating Rossetti’s poetry, I will look for tension in regards to setting, characters, and emotion (Wright, 27).

Winter: My Secret is considered to be Rossetti’s signature poem in regards to secrets. The tension is whether or not a particular secret shall be revealed. Usually, the title of a poem is meant to reveal important information about it and a colon indicates that which follows explains or illustrates that which precedes. Winter is a dark, dead time when people are reluctant to go outside. Might winter be symbolic of Rossetti’s well documented secluded life in later years? If so, might it at least in part, have resulted from the secret?

Today, the secret cannot be told; it ‘froze, and blows, and snows’. That which is frozen connects through rhyme with ‘knows’ and ‘shows’. Might the secret be frozen? Although rhyme also suggests a light-hearted ‘gaming’ attitude (perhaps there is no secret but just ‘my fun’), the scansion is at odds with such gaiety – it is illusive and evasive and, perhaps like the emotions underlying it, the metre is an untidy jumble.

Might this light-hearted attitude be a ploy?

Winter: My Secret is structured as a dramatic monologue the major feature of which is the speaker’s desire to achieve a purpose (Pearsall, 68). Here the speaker is attempting to establish herself (the veil suggests the speaker is female) as more powerful than her silent listener. How could she be expected to let down her guard to ‘test’ his or her ‘good will’ with so much potential for ‘nipping’ and ‘biting’ and ‘pecking’? Not only that, but giving in would unveil her – strip her cloak – exposing her to the ‘draughts’ that come ‘whistling’ through her ‘halls’. Would revelation of the secret cause her to being literally ‘frozen out’ in her own home?

While there is little evidence that Rossetti had a difficult relationship with her mother, we do know that during her father’s illness she was more or less forced to be his constant, sole companion (Marsh 47). There is the suggestion that her father, confusing Christina with her mother whom she resembled, might have made excessive demands on her (Marsh, 48). What these might have been, we ought not to conjecture. But we can surmise the scene was set for Rossetti’s Oedipus complex to unfold.

The poem shifts to spring and summer. Yet the secret remains untold. Issues of ‘trust’ endure as does the continued threat of ‘frost’ that ‘withers’ May flowers (virginity?). During the time of her father’s illness, Rossetti, well-developed for her age, changed from a ‘quick-tempered’ but ‘affectionate girl’ to a ‘painfully controlled young woman’ who was ‘mistrustful of the world and of her own self’ (Marsh 49). It was also during this period that she started to self-harm (Marsh, 50). Both suggest the Oedipal complex was in full swing (Gardner, 72).

The poem ends in limbo. The secret will be revealed only at such impossible time as there is ‘not too much sun nor too much cloud’ and ‘the warm wind is neither still nor loud’. Might the speaker also be in limbo in regards to her secret? If so, there are many possible reasons. However in terms of Freudian theory, the most likely is that her Oedipal complex has failed resolve. More often than not, the Oedipal complex is not enacted physically but psychologically. Father is the king and daughter, the princess. But as Rossetti reached sexual maturity, her father became old and ill. If ever he was, he is kingly no more. Rossetti’s biographers suggest she found this extremely difficult with which to deal (Marsh, 49). Possibly, she discovered other ‘father’ figures upon which to hang her desires? Her brother revealed she did hold a ‘rather unusual feeling of deference’ to the (male) head of the family in later years (Marsh, 48). At any rate, there is more than a hint that she never came to grips with her sexuality vis a vis men.

Men, Freud claims, separate women into either mothers/sisters or prostitutes. While symbolising the mother, a woman is a ‘forbidden oedipal object-choice’; she is to be married, not sexually desired. A wife must reciprocate her husband’s establishing her as an asexual mother (‘angel in the house’) so that he may pursue the ‘prostitute’ while avoiding his own Oedipal guilt (Chodorow, 239). Freud does not suggest how this might affect women who may or may not have successfully completed their own Oedipal journeys (he claimed his understanding of women was ‘shadowy and incomplete’, Chodorow, 246). But it is not hard to imagine that these ‘angels in the house’ might resent their sexually promiscuous ‘rivals’.

A recurring theme in Rossetti’s poetry was that of the ‘fallen woman’. This was not unusual. The fallen woman was a recurring leitmotif in Victorian art and literature (D’Amico, 94). However, unlike most artists, Rossetti refused to lay the blame solely on the woman (D’Amico, 95). An Apple Gathering, written in 1857 when Rossetti had already received one of the three marriage offers she would reject, is representative of her approach.

Initially, this poem appears to be either another story of ‘love gone wrong’ or a warning that only virgins become wives. But the use of apples as allegory for the relationship between temptation and ‘original sin’ should not be overlooked. ‘Pink’ apple ‘blossoms’ have been ‘plucked’ (suggesting sexual indulgence) by a young girl for the benefit of her ‘love’. As the result, at harvest (the appropriate time to pick fruit), she has no apples (no husband nor home of her own).

Instead of heaping scorn on herself, however, the speaker turns it on her ‘love’ – for in her eyes, it was he who succumbed to temptation: the ‘rosiest apples offered by ‘plump Gertrude’. How could the speaker’s love be of ‘less worth’ than whatever Gertrude had brought to the table? This is not a standard Victorian response. Even more surprisingly, when the night grew ‘chill’ (the speaker is literally left out in the cold) and her neighbours ‘hastened’ (away), the fallen woman ‘loitered’ and ‘loitered still’, refusing to either tragically fade or die as was socially expected (D’Amico, 102). Given her religious values and social position, it is puzzling why Rossetti would have strayed so far from the party line. Had she perhaps, like the fallen women in her poetry, also succumbed to temptation?

Rossetti often wrote sympathetically about the Eve, ‘the first mother’. Her stance was that, being deceived by Satan (master of guile), Eve’s only error was one of mistake. Adam, on the other hand, was not mistaken. His was not an error of judgement, but one of will (D’Amico, 126). That Rossetti failed to wholesale adopt the angelic ‘mother’ imagery of her time suggests that, having commenced her Oedipal cycle, she failed to complete it by returning to identify with ‘mother’. For Freud, this would account for her apparent inability to form appropriate adult heterosexual relationships. It would also account for her retreat into religion; Freud believed religion was an attempt to master or control the Oedipus complex.

This brings us to the last of Rossetti’s poems that I wish to consider. Up-Hill is hauntingly – yet subtly – evocative of religious imagery (‘day’ and ‘night’ suggests life and death and the weary traveller ‘seeking’ a ‘resting place’ at an ‘inn’ is often used to signify Christians seeking redemption).

Like Winter: My Secret, Up-Hill also focuses on secrets, albeit of a different kind. Like Winter: My Secret, Up-Hill adopts a playful, rhyming tone. Unlike Winter: My Secret, however, the secret in Up-Hill will be freely given if only the seeker knows how to ask. Up-Hill is not a dramatic monologue. The speaker does not necessarily have a purpose to achieve. Instead, it is structured as a question and answer sequence with two speakers, both fully articulated and engaged. They are not equals, however and their relationship is more akin to that of teacher/student or, perhaps because of the riddle-like nature of the responses, that of guru/disciple.

Most importantly, the primary speaker in Up-Hill no longer is anxious or threatened as she was in Winter: My Secret. This suggests that he or she (there is no clue as to the speaker’s sex in Up-Hill) has found solace – perhaps even forgiveness – in religion. As with Eve, ‘the first’ mother’, his or her past sins will be washed away and as Rossetti desired for Eve, this speaker plans to be among the forgiven on resurrection day (D’Amico, 129). This is not to suggest that Rossetti definitively found resolution of her Oedipus Complex (or her secret) in religion. However, it is well-known that she turned down three marriage offers in a society where marriage was expected and, as she grew older, she took increasing solace in her religion.

In summary, while no conclusions can be drawn regarding whether Rossetti’s work revolved around a secret (or whether or how she resolved her Oedipal complex), I believe that by looking through the lens of ‘whispers from a secret life’, we can view Rossetti and her work in new and engaging ways.

 

 

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Bibliography

 

Blass, Rachel and Bennet Simon. “The development and vicissitudes of Freud’s ideas on the Oedipus complex (161-174). The Cambridge Companion to Freud. ed. by Jerome Neu. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (online) 2006.

Chodorow, Nancy J. “Freud on Women” (224-248). The Cambridge Companion to Freud. ed. by Jerome Neu. Cambridge University Press (online) 2006

D’Amico, Diane. Christina Rossetti: Faith Gender and Time. Baton Rouge; Louisiana State University Press (1999).

Devlin, Rachel. “Acting out the Oedipal Wish: Father-Daughter Incest and the Sexuality of Adolescent Girls in the United States, 1941-1965.” Journal of Social History, Spring 2005, Vol. 28, No. 3, pp. 609-633.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (1996).

Frankland, Graham. Freud’s Literary Culture. Port Chester, NY: Cambridge University Press (2000).

Gardner, Fiona. Self-Harm: A Psychotherapeutic Approach. ed. by Patrick Parrinder. London: Routledge (2013).

Hassett, Constance W. Christina Rossetti: The Patience of Style. Charlottesville; University of Virginia Press (2005).

Marsh, Jan. Christina Rossetti: a literary biography. London: Jonathan Cape (1994).

Pearsall, Cornelia DJ. “The Dramatic Monologue” (67-88). The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (online) 2006.

Peck, John and Coyle, Martin. Practical Criticism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan ((1995).

“Religion as an attempt to master the oedipus complex.” Freud Museum London. http://www.freud.org.uk/education/topic/10573/subtopic/40001/ (3 April 2014).

Wright, Elizabeth. Psychoanalytic Criticism: A Reappraisal. Cambridge: Polity Press (2nd ed.) 1998.

 

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