Modern critical approaches


A critical approach which considers how a particular poem works with various subtexts or literary influences can be described as participating in a form of intertextuality.

The various literary influences which critics have argued have helped shape Rossetti's poetry include:

  • Romantic poetry. Much of the imagery and symbolism Rossetti chooses to employ has its roots in the poems written by the Romantics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. For more information on this, see Literary context > Romantic poetry
  • Gothic literature. Tracing the influence of authors such as Charles Robert Maturin, John Polidori and Ann Radcliffe, many critics have recognized the gothic elements that Rossetti includes in her writings. See Literary context > Gothic literature
  • Seventeenth century poetry. Several critics have noted how Rossetti's poetry frequently relies on the symbolism of various emblems. For more information on emblems and Emblem books, see The world of Shakespeare and the Metaphysical poets > Early seventeenth century literary scene > Emblem poems
  • Tractarian poetry. In his 1981 book, Victorian Devotional Poetry, critic G.B. Tennyson suggests that Christina Rossetti was ‘the true inheritor of the Tractarian devotional mode in poetry'. He argues that:
Much of what the Tractarians advocated in theory and sought to put into practice came to fruition in the poetry of Christina Rossetti. (p. 198)

For more information about the Tractarian movement, see Religious / philosophical context > Tractarianism

  • Women's poetry. Rossetti herself acknowledges her admiration for the female poets who influenced her, such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, L.E.L., Felicia Hemans and Augusta Webster. Many of her poems concentrate on the same themes and work with the same ideas as the poems of these women. For more information, see Literary context > Victorian women's poetry.

Feminist criticism

The Oxford English Dictionary defines feminism as ‘the advocacy of the rights of women'. Although Rossetti was not generally perceived as a feminist in her own day, the term feminist has been applied to her by various critics who wish to establish her involvement with the re-writing of tradition in an attempt to include women where they had been previously excluded.

In their 1979 feminist study of nineteenth century women's literature, The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gilbar recognise the factors that prevented a Victorian woman from standing on equal terms to their male contemporaries. They suggest that Rossetti is among the ‘singers of renunciation' of her time and argue that she willingly accepts the state of destitution into which she is cast (p.564). They emphasise how the culture of patriarchy curbed her passions and meant that she was not the powerful female role model that she had the potential to become.

In her 1996 book, Lost Saints: Gender and Victorian Literary Canonization, Tricia Lootens analyses how Victorian women poets were glorified as saints whilst, paradoxically, their intellectual input was systematically dismissed by their male contemporaries. Her analysis of Rossetti seeks to highlight the various ways in which she has been excluded by critical thought and re-positions her as a serious subject for feminist scholarship to consider.

Feminist theology

Feminist theology is a practice that has become popular in the study of various religions. It seeks to reconsider the sources and literature of a religion from a feminist perspective. In her 2002 book, Christina Rossetti's Feminist Theology, Lynda Palazzo suggests reading and revaluing Rossetti's writings as theology. As such, she argues her poems and devotional prose can be interpreted as interpretations of the Bible. In her consideration of Goblin Market (see Poems for study > Goblin Market), Palazzo writes of how

Rossetti has radically rewritten the Fall of Eve in terms of the social and spiritual abuse of women which she sees around her and includes more than a hint that male gender oppression be interpreted as original sin. (p. 27)

New historicism and the future of Rossetti studies

A new historicist reading emphasises the historical, social, political and cultural context in which a poem is conceived, written, published, distributed, read and received. New historicists argue that contemporary issues, hopes and anxieties, whether or not they appear or are explicitly discussed in a particular text, may have a determining effect on the shape and direction of the text.

In 1999, Rossetti critics Mary Arseneau, Lorraine Janzen Kooistra and Antony Harrison asked, ‘What does the future hold for Rossetti studies?' They suggested that if their edited collection is any indication:

‘we will see more contextualisation's of Rossetti's art within a variety of interrelated discourses, including those that address issue of gender, science, economics, politics, aesthetics, religion, or class structure'. (p. xvii)
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