December 5, 2020

Advent with Christina Rossetti (2)


Friday was Christina Rossetti’s birthday. She was born December 5, 1830. During this Advent season we are considering some of her seasonal poems, using them as material for meditation and contemplation as we prepare for celebrating the birth of Christ.

The following excerpt from Rossetti’s biographical page at The Poetry Foundation explains her religious affiliation and how it affected the poet in her adult life.

5543830701_a6c24c7125_nCaught up in the Tractarian or Oxford Movement when it reached London in the 1840s, the Rossettis shifted from an Evangelical to an Anglo-Catholic orientation, and this outlook influenced virtually all of Christina Rossetti’s poetry. She was also influenced by the poetics of the Oxford Movement, as is documented in the annotations and illustrations she added to her copy of John Keble’s The Christian Year (1827) and in her reading of poetry by Isaac Williams and John Henry Newman. For more than twenty years, beginning in 1843, she worshiped at Christ Church, Albany Street, where services were influenced by the innovations emanating from Oxford. The Reverend William Dodsworth, the priest there until his conversion to Catholicism in 1850, assumed a leading role as the Oxford Movement spread to London. In addition to coming under the religious influence of prominent Tractarians such as Dodsworth, W. J. E. Bennett, Henry W. Burrows, and E. B. Pusey, Rossetti had close personal ties with Burrows and Richard Frederick Littledale, a High Church theologian who became her spiritual adviser. The importance of Rossetti’s faith for her life and art can hardly be overstated. More than half of her poetic output is devotional, and the works of her later years in both poetry and prose are almost exclusively so. The inconstancy of human love, the vanity of earthly pleasures, renunciation, individual unworthiness, and the perfection of divine love are recurring themes in her poetry.

For more on the Oxford Movement, follow this link to an article at Pusey House.

Many of Christina Rossetti’s Advent and Christmas poems are lyrical meditations on the bleak landscapes of northern climes this time of year. These poems are fitting for this penitential season called Advent, when we lament the darkness in our hearts and this sinful world and voice our longings for God’s light, life, joy, and peace.

Here, for example, are two poignant stanzas from an 1858 poem she simply called, “Advent.” In addition to its reflections on the changing of seasons, I love its allusions and references to stories and passages in the First Testament.

il_fullxfullWe weep because the night is long,
We laugh for day shall rise,
We sing a slow contented song
And knock at Paradise.
Weeping we hold Him fast Who wept
For us, we hold Him fast;
And will not let Him go except
He bless us first or last.

Weeping we hold Him fast tonight;
We will not let Him go
Till daybreak smite our wearied sight
And summer smite the snow:
Then figs shall bud, and dove with dove
Shall coo the livelong day;
Then He shall say, “Arise, my love,
My fair one, come away.



  1. Such passion and intensity. She makes allusion to, it would seem, Jacob’s fight for a blessing and doesn’t care if it’s tops or bottom of the barrel, only that it be given. It’s like, here I am with only one option so I’m all yours and I expect everything you have for me whatever that may be. I’m reminded of that great scene from An Officer and a Gentleman where Richard Gere cries, “I got nowhere else to go, I got nowhere else to go.” As Peter said, “you have the words of eternal life.” Some scoff at that idea but when that love is born in you it becomes both gloriously and frighteningly clear that all else is shadows and play acting. You’re, “all in” as they say. No net. The nights can be intense but they bring about an intense love. She displays that beautifully.

    • I’m unfamiliar with the love born within that you speak of. I know the long nights of wrestling, but in the morning it seems as it did throughout the night: I’ve been wrestling with myself, and the shadow of my hopes and fears.

      The most fearful thing that comes from these wrestling matches with myself is the realization, which I come to again and again, that I know of no way to put myself “all in,” that most of me is out of reach of my awareness of myself, and that, the older I get, the more out of reach I seem to myself. I can only hope that God is already there in those vast, unknown parts of my soul, and that he is redeeming me even as I thrash through those futile wrestling matches with myself. I’m no Richard Gere.

      • I have wrestle with myself a lot. I still do. I have never come away a winner. I always lose. It is the most frustrating thing I know. I have stood on the mountain and yelled at God. I have spilled my heart and in it I have been wrong. When I have finished with all of that He has brought me up a notch. It always happens when I am quiet which by the way is not all that often as you think. I have a lot on my mind and seem to have no trouble telling Him.

        When He spills love and truth into me I stand a little taller and my shoulders go back and I start to realize what I mean to Him. It is within chastisement. He corrects me. This love I have no answer for only an ear and a tear. You argue away Robert and get it finished. We here are not going without you. You hear me.

      • One of my most meaningful prayers has been, “I want to surrender all.” Note the nuance, not “I surrender all,” but “I WANT to surrender all.”

        Surrendering all, going “all in”…God knows my struggle. It’s the “wanting to”, the desire, that’s key.

        God is good. He is gracious to me, a fallible, messed up human.

        • Christiane Smith says

          “My soul is at peace, for long ago, I ceased to belong to myself.”

          (Therese of Lisieux)

          • That’s it.

          • If Christianity is really just another, more spiritualized, form of “winners and losers,” those who get “it” and those who don’t, then I want no part of “it.” I don’t believe that’s what it’s ultimately about, but if it is, I’m not interested. You can have “it,” along with Therese of Lisieux and all the other winners and insiders. I’ll just stay out here with all the other preterite, those “passed over by God and History.”

      • “…I’ve been wrestling with myself, and the shadow of my hopes and fears…”

        Robert, I hope you know what a dear person you are. It’s a hard thing to struggle though so many dark nights this way, and harder still to describe it. I’m grateful for your frankness and your heart. If you don’t believe me in text, I hope I run across you someday, and get a chance to say it again in person.

        What you say resonates, especially the exhaustion and seeming isolation that (for me) comes from long internal debate – the kind done in earnest, with great feeling or fear, that seem always to run in circles. I can accept a great deal of uncertainty bravely, but there are times where I seem to lose all foothold in the face of particular fears. The chief of those is that what is needful to knowing God will slip through my fingers like so much sand, and I’ll find myself without Christ. Interrogating my own feelings churns up similar trepidation. I know what I wish my heart contained; what it does contain, is another matter. I wonder if I even know.

        I have to believe that wrestling over these things is not merely a struggle on one’s own, but that God is present. It is fascinating to me that Jacob’s wrestling with God is – not only a struggle, but a struggle in the dark.

        “I can only hope that God is already there in those vast, unknown parts of my soul, and that he is redeeming me even as I thrash through those futile wrestling matches with myself.”

        May you find Him in every direction you turn, in the open places and in the dark corners.

        • Thank you for your thoughtful and kind words, Danielle, and for your prayer. May you also find true peace in this season, and lifetime, of Advent waiting.

          • Robert, I apparantly come off to you like some spiritual elitest. Nothing is further from the truth. I feel waylayed by you here. Whatever insider spiritualism you think I am espousing is a thousand miles off the mark. I don’t appreciate your characterization of me as some wannabe hoity toity spiritual insider type. You sound bitter to boot. I simply commented on a beautiful sentiment in a beautiful poem and now I feel the need to defend myself. I don’t know what your agenda is but I honestly don’t get it. That’s all I’m going to say because I don’t really know what you’re talking about and I don’t have the energy to pursue this weird contention over nothing.

          • ChrisS, You’re right. I apologize. Nothing in your comment warranted my negative reaction. You are entitled to your own experience, and you’re entitled to not have your comments twisted by my bitterness and misanthropy. I’m sorry.

          • Ok my friend.

          • I feel like I deeply understand where Robert F is coming from. When one is struggling in the dark it can be triggering to listen to others rejoicing in their self-stated surety about anything – including God’s love or their own belonging to God. It doesn’t mean the rejoicing one is wrong and shouldn’t rejoice or state their own experience of faith out loud, but I really wish the word “bitter” wouldn’t be directed toward those of us who long to be one of those “in the know” but aren’t sure at all that we are. For those of us in that camp, we’re not necessarily trying to start “a weird contention over nothing” – we may just be expressing the honest pain and doubt in our own heart. Believe me, I’ve had more than enough of “winners vs. losers” stuff thrown at me to know exactly what Robert F is talking about here about those who “get it” vs. those who “don’t”. For some of us, the darkness of this Advent season is all too thick and real and not easily parted. Please pray for us (for me), but please don’t accuse us of being bitter because we’re frustrated we’re still in the dark.

          • Thank HR.

  2. Tohu Wabohu says

    When I referred to Advent as a penitential season the other day, one of my low-church (but wannabe charismatic) brethren scoffed at the notion. I fully expect to see the liturgical dancers shimmying in the aisles at that church this morning, as the worship band plays season-appropriate CCLI Top 50 hits and the leader exhorts the congregation to shout for joy (no long faces allowed),’cuz we’re gettin’ ready for the biggest and best birthday party of them all– can I get an amen?

    • I love this stuff in this poem. I am always in penitential season as I am always in a Christmas day. Easter is both the saddest for me and the most joyful for me and it is carried throughout everyday. I cry way more than I laugh and I go to the Charismatic church with the dancing in the aisles. I don’t express myself that way. I sing as silent tears stream down my face. I have a hard time when that stuff is pushed on me. I am joyful even though the tracks on my face.

      The bigger the struggle and greater the challenge the more drive I have. I love to split the hardest pieces of wood. I love to walk up the mountain and pray. If it wasn’t hard and steep I wouldn’t bother. It reminds me of this life. I always wonder why we want to put people into our box. I don’t want to do that anymore. Let them dance. I want to stand on the corner and protect everyone of them. They are precious.

  3. Ok, I “hear” a little something that touches me in this one of hers. I DID say I would keep an open mind and heart……

  4. Ronald Avra says

    Garrison Keillor featured Rossetti and some of her verse on Friday’s ‘Writer’s Almanac.’ I enjoyed listening to him read her verse. Frequently, I get much more out of listening to verse read than just reading it myself; someone else giving the verse aural dynamic makes it come alive.