By Emma Mason
OUP, 240pp, £30/$39.95
Devotional Victorian poets understood the particularities of nature as manifestations of God’s presence in the cosmos. For instance, Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ understood all of creation to be instances of God communicating aspects of Himself. Along similar lines, Christina Rossetti was also fascinated by nature’s myriad dimensions. Indeed, Rossetti’s care for the created world was always first and foremost theological in its motivations and implications.
Lines from Rossetti’s sonnet sequence, Later Life: A Double Sonnet of Sonnets, encapsulate the kind of vision she had of the created world as a fallen world which yearns for full renewal through, with, and in Christ: “Tread softly! all the earth is holy ground”, she gently cautions. Rossetti viewed the interrelations between the supernatural and natural as a kind of divine ecology, grounded in and animated by divine love.
Rossetti’s poetry and prose are infused by a sense of the mysterious, symbiotic relationship between the divine and creation, between “the spot[s] we stand on” and the “dust of saints” that “may rise”. This point lies at the heart of Emma Mason’s new biography, subtitled Poetry, Ecology and Faith. Addressing Rossetti’s poetry, diaries, letters and devotional commentaries, Mason offers the most sustained examination to date of what could be termed Rossetti’s “eco-theology” – a theological examination of the created world, grounded in a belief in the kinship between the cosmos and its Creator, a kinship which Rossetti found at the heart of Scripture, the Church Fathers and Tractarian teaching – especially as propounded by John Keble and John Henry Newman.
One of the many significant contributions in Mason’s study is the sustained, nuanced attention she gives to the theological and personal particularities present in Rossetti’s care for nature. As Mason notes, Rossetti studies have largely neglected the specificities of Rossetti’s ecological imagination (in both its natural and supernatural dimensions). For instance, while Serena Trowbridge has recently argued that Rossetti was an “urbanite” whose interest in nature was “not rooted in specific places”, Mason goes to great lengths to counter this assertion, arguing that Rossetti’s urban life, first in Marylebone and then Bloomsbury, frequently formed and informed her nature writing. Rossetti’s own personal, urbanite ecosystem, as it were, included not only Regent’s Park and the Zoological Gardens but also her beloved Tractarian parish, Christ Church on Albany Street (which became St George’s Cathedral and, since 1989, has been an Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral).
In examining how nature shaped Rossetti’s devotional imagination, Mason insightfully (re)traces the spiritual and intellectual history of Rossetti’s growing attraction towards the doctrines and devotional practices of Tractarianism and the “Catholic or High Christian Revival”, noting that this development in Rossetti’s personal history is intensified by, and intensifies, her love for nature.
Mason argues that Rossetti’s interest in Tractarian revivals of medieval liturgical practices helped the poet understand liturgy and worship as “an echo of the fellowship and communion inherent in creation”.
For, to Rossetti’s mind, the Holy Catholic Apostolic Church bore “witness to all creation embodied in the Trinity”. Moreover, Mason details at length the ways in which Rossetti believed that the Trinitarian love for the cosmos includes, and requires, our special care for “animal and plant life”.
At times, Mason uses a variety of terms (“green grace” and “ecotheological” come to mind) which don’t fully describe the Victorian habit of mind. As a result, the lines between contemporary environmental concerns and Rossetti’s own spiritual cares are sometimes blurred, aligning the former with the latter in ways that don’t always fully cohere (especially theologically). Rossetti’s interest in creation was theologically motivated, whereas this is not the case with certain forms of popular, contemporary environmentalism.
However, it is important to emphasise that Mason’s attention to both contemporary ecocritical and theological concerns leads her to provide insights into the prominent role St Francis of Assisi played in Victorian attitudes towards recovering a more holistic, medieval theology of creation. Francis of Assisi was influential on numerous Victorian thinkers such as the Rossetti family, Coventry Patmore, John Henry Newman and the Tractarians.
Indeed, the “Tractarians elevated Francis as a symbol of [spiritual and ecclesial] reform and devotion,” Mason reminds us. This Franciscan (re)turn in Victorian devotional attitudes towards creation, liturgy and prayer shows that authentic concern for the environment “emerges … from a Christian tradition in which love of creation and one’s neighbour has always been paramount”.
Overall, Mason’s fresh and beautifully articulated readings of Rossetti can go a long way to helping us further appreciate both Rossetti’s devotional aesthetics and our responsibility to be conscientious, charitable stewards over creation in all of its dimensions.