The Victorian poet Christina Rossetti (1830–1894) is most celebrated for her popular Christmas carols, but her most prolific liturgical season was Lent. A fervent Anglican, Rossetti expressed in her poems a deeper understanding of suffering than pieces like “Love Came Down At Christmas” might lead you to suspect. In her Lenten poetry, she focuses not only on her own sins, but highlights how her intense brokenness united her to God.
Known as a beautiful and charming young woman, Rossetti embraced lifelong singlehood after rejecting three marriage proposals on religious grounds. She dressed in black, matronly attire that suited her way of life and supported herself financially by writing. Her status as a cultural anomaly was strengthened by her schedule: She spent hours a day in prayer and attended church services whenever her health permitted her, including on weekdays.
But Rossetti’s life was marked by suffering as well as religious devotion. She was frequently the victim of ill health (including breast cancer and Graves Disease) and had what we would now consider depression. Despite her writing, she was always seen as a family burden. These contrasts have made her difficult to understand—not only for her contemporaries but for her present-day critics, who have often missed Rossetti’s Christian understanding of suffering.
The importance of this suffering becomes clear in “Ash Wednesday,” a poem she wrote in two parts over several years. The first part of “Ash Wednesday,” published in 1885, begins:
My God, my God, have mercy on my sin,
For it is great; and if I should begin
To tell it all, the day would be too small
To tell it in.
Rossetti’s awareness of her own sin was no mere piety. Along with depression, she suffered from a passionate temper. This violent mental disposition took on its lifelong religious expression when, at age thirteen, Rossetti began attending Christ Church Albany Street with her mother Frances and her sister Maria. The three women were drawn to the Oxford Movement, which postulated that Anglicanism, along with Catholicism and Orthodoxy, was one of the three branches of the “one Catholic Church.” The movement (also known as Tractarianism) was fairly short-lived, but Rossetti would retain its “high church” Anglo-Catholic expression for the rest of her life.
Rossetti was attracted to this fervent religious setting in part because of her youth, passion, and depression—but her overenthusiastic piety gave her occasion for self-harm. She would later recall in a letter to her niece an anecdote about tearing up her own arm with scissors after being rebuked by her mother. Faith did not cure her depression, but it freed her to experience her mental and spiritual state in a meaningful way by allowing her to unite it to the suffering of others.
Her long path toward that liberating solidarity began with her loving confidence in Christ, a sentiment that fills her poetry from a young age. We see this as the first part of “Ash Wednesday” continues:
My God, Thou wilt have mercy on my sin
For Thy Love’s sake: yea, if I should begin
To tell This all, the day would be too small
To tell it in.
Here, Rossetti is sure of God’s mercy and love, and emphasizes it even in the most penitent of liturgical moments. She does not need to beg. In Rossetti’s Lenten writing, God’s justice is his mercy. Lent is a season of ascetic fasting, discipline, and preparation, but the merciful end is never out of sight, and she mastered that reconciliation of sober externals and interior joy in her own life.
Rossetti’s tone changes drastically in the second part of “Ash Wednesday,” which was published eight years after the first two stanzas. Over those eight years, she went through two major trials that informed her attitude toward suffering as a religious experience. Her mother, who had been her lifelong companion, died in 1886, and Rossetti’s breast cancer required a mastectomy—performed in her own home—in 1892. Her Graves Disease advanced all the while. In this pain, she wrote:
Good Lord, today
I scarce find breath to say:
Scourge, but receive me.
For stripes are hard to bear, but worse
Thy intolerable curse;
So do not leave me.
“Scourge,” Rossetti asks, seeking solidarity with the suffering of Christ. She had occupied herself with this suffering her whole life. After all, she was a poor girl in an immigrant family with a great deal of financial and medical troubles, for all their pre-Raphaelite pretensions. She also had been drawn to the suffering of others, attempting to become a nurse with Florence Nightingale in 1854 and failing to do so only because of her young age. After gaining experience in school, she spent a decade working alongside the Anglican nuns (including her sister Maria) who ran the St. Mary Magdalene House of Charity reformatory for former prostitutes in Highgate.
Rossetti identified with these women by uniting her own suffering with their own. This was rough work with rough consequences—associating with prostitutes and nuns did not elevate her socially. But that was a benefit, if anything, for her. Her voluntarily assumed profession of fellow sufferer freed her little by little from societal expectations. Her service of others as a lay celibate Christian allowed her to fulfill her own vocation as writer and servant of the community. It was a phenomenon firmly in tune with Christianity, a religion that preaches exactly that liberation of those who take up their cross.
Rossetti voluntarily assumed fellow-suffering with these women freed her little by little from societal expectations. And so Rossetti felt her own burden lightened by this communal suffering, as she finished the poem:
Good Lord, lean down
In pity, tho’ Thou frown;
Smite, but retrieve me:
For so Thou hold me up to stand
And kiss Thy smiting hand,
It less will grieve me.
It was no small thing for Rossetti to feel less grieved. Yet her poetry is filled with proclamations of the Lord’s joy and her life’s meaning in His light (many of them are positively cheerful). Contemporaries and biographers remained mystified, but her Lenten religiosity sees no difficulty in synthesis. Her reclusive writing and communal service were two expressions of a single mission: To use asceticism to engage, rather than to escape. In this, Christina Rossetti is the very model of the Lenten spirit.
Various speculations about the cause of Rossetti’s depression have plagued her biographies. Jan Marsh, for instance, theorized that her father had sexually abused her, while feminist critics in the 1970s chalked up her late adolescent breakdown to generic Christian repression. Even Rossetti’s family doctor condescendingly diagnosed her with “religious mania” at age eighteen. But no one really knows what exacerbated her depression. What we realize in reading “Ash Wednesday,” however, is how little that matters.
When Christ Church Albany Street was built, its brick and stucco were painted bright yellow. They have since chipped away to a stale brownish-red. In one sense the church has been darkened and beaten, but it has also been stripped down to a bare honesty that matches the surrounding discarded alleys. The church meets its neighborhood on its own battered terms.
Rossetti’s Christianity did not necessarily lose its youthful joy and vibrance as a post-traumatic response to a single event. Rather, she realized over time that the central symbol of her religion was a crucified man, a realization we can see form over the course of “Ash Wednesday.” What remains through the poem, however, is her steadfast hope in the God that she knows hears her.
Lent is a season of preparation, and it takes two forms: penitent examination of self and communal observance of fasting and liturgy. But a season of preparation is also a season of hope. Rossetti’s poetry, filled as it is by her suffering, can help us to understand what this season means. Though Rossetti’s Lenten life has ended, her example can still help us join our suffering to that of others through the transformative power of the cross.
Catherine Addington is a writer currently based in New York. She tweets here. Image from Wikimedia Commons.