“‘When I am dead my dearest...’ Modernism Remembers and Forgets Rossetti”

by Anne Jamison


Review essay: reading Christina Rossetti in Virginia Woolf, Collected Essays, Vol. 4 (London: Hogarth 1967) and Ezra Pound, Literary Essays (Westport: Greenwood, 1979).


“I am Christina Rossetti”
                           — Virginia Woolf

“Christina… sets my teeth on edge”
                           — Ezra Pound

For a long time, to be modern was to not be Victorian. And certainly, the image of Christina Rossetti, retiring and ailing Victorian spinster penning verses about birds and goblins, fits the image of everything modern poetry sets out to oppose. This image has powerful resonance; it intervenes, looms large in any potential discussion about Rossetti as participating—poetically speaking—in the practice and formulation of modern poetics. Rossetti comes far too early, I have often been told, to be discussed in the context of poetic modernism, although this objection is never raised about Charles Baudelaire, her exact contemporary. It seems that Rossetti—“Christina,” as both Woolf and Pound tend to call her—arrived at the wrong time and the wrong place and, as Pound’s distinctly more venomous “Christina” reminds us, in the wrong gender to be modern.

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have famously argued that modernism, in particular, formalist and language-centered, experimental literary modernism, was “constructed not just against the grain of Victorian male precursors” but as part of “a complex response to female precursors and contemporaries” and that reaction “against the rise of literary women became not just a theme… but a motive for modernism.” [1] Any reader familiar with the dizzyingly juvenile, quasi-pornographic misogyny that characterizes the rhetoric of Eliot’s and Pound’s poetic collaboration can hardly wonder at this estimation, as Pound disparages the “great passive vulva of London” or mocks Eliot for having “cervic cysts” “honied by hellenists.” [2] Gilbert and Gubar implicate Pound’s and Eliot’s “twin strategies of excavation and innovation” and “the linguistic innovation associated with the avant-garde—they specify puns, allusions”, and “arcane and fractured forms”—in a project of cultural elitism that excludes women. Despite the “intermittent” participation of “a Gertrude Stein and a Djuna Barnes,” they contend, formal innovation of this kind is “a men’s club.” [3]

But this critical logic accepts what it critiques as the underlying premise of modernism: that a formalist poetics excludes women. If this kind of modernist poetic formalism does indeed arise in opposition to what it repeatedly characterizes as a “feminine” poetics of “soft” “sentimentality” but also in opposition to the literary success of actual women, it is convenient to conflate these poetic enemies such that femininity, softness, and successful poetry by women take a form that much resembles a Victorian spinster poetess. Her champions, then, might well wish to repudiate the poetics that seems so to oppose her. Yet the exclusion of a number of poems by Christina Rossetti from a developing tradition of poetic modernism can occur only in violation of this modernism’s own principles of poetic value, impersonality, and formal innovation. On formal grounds alone, Rossetti’s volume Goblin Market features poems driven by formal or material devices that will later be claimed and coded as “modern”: puns, for example, as central or driving textual elements (“May” turns on a month and a possibility (or lack thereof), while “Spring” plays on compression at the formal level); or the metrical collage of “arcane and fractured forms” that is the title poem. If we take poetic modernism on its own terms and abstract the poetry from its poet, then Rossetti’s poetry indeed does have something of “the modern cadence” that Pound reluctantly attributes to her. I’m arguing here, however, not on the evidence of the poems (as I have elsewhere) but rather on the evidence of modernism’s reaction to Rossetti, as embodied in essays by Virginia Woolf and Ezra Pound. For modern writers and for generations of critics educated in their wake, it is difficult to recognize the spinster as a poet; more than awkward, to embrace the Victorian as the modern. Since Pound defined creative thought as being “like the male cast of the human seed” and associated literary form with masculine “hardness,” we can see why acknowledging Rossetti as a poetic predecessor would pose problems. [4] For Woolf, a modern and a woman much concerned with her identity as both, the acknowledgement is more urgent but no less troubled. Why these difficulties remain so in force today is less clear; perhaps the intransigence of these oppositions is best understood as a testament to the entrenched staying power of a gendered poetics that the moderns only inherited, as did we. Indeed, the following largely unadorned comparison of two modernist reactions to Rossetti demonstrate the just how powerful and deforming a force this gendered understanding of poetic innovation has been.

Ezra Pound: “The Hard and Soft in French Poetry” (1918); “The Prose Tradition in Verse” (1914)

Ezra Pound several times singles out elements of Rossetti’s work as characterized by qualities he values, but does so almost nervously, deflecting this positive evaluation or simply glancing off it to deny its validity for reasons that remain uninvestigated. In discussing, for example, the qualities of “hardness” and “softness” (he likes “hardness,” of course) Pound evokes Rossetti: “[t]here is definite statement in George Herbert, and likewise in Christina Rossetti, but I do not feel that they have much part in this essay. I do not feel that their quality is really the quality I am seeking here to define.” [5] Not surprisingly, Pound finds the woman poet not “hard” in the way he is thinking, but he does not elaborate on how her “statement” differs from the “hardness” he has in mind and immediately abandons any further discussion of her poetry. Similarly, in a discussion of Ford Madox Ford, Pound nearly writhes on the page in confronting “Mr. Hueffer’s” understanding that poetry is “‘all Christina Rossetti’”:

As for Christina, Mr.Hueffer is a better critic than I am, and I would be the last to deny that a certain limpidity and precision are the ultimate qualities of style; yet I cannot accept his opinion. Christina had these qualities, it is true—in places, but they are to be found also in Browning and even in Swinburne at rare moments. Christina very often sets my teeth on edge—but so, for that matter, does Mr. Hueffer. But it is the function of criticism to find what a given work is, rather than what it is not. It is also the faculty of a capital or of high civilization to value a man for some rare ability, to make use of him and not to hinder him or itself by asking of him faculties which he does not possess. [emphasis added]

Mr. Hueffer may have found certain properties of style first, for himself, in Christina, but others have found them elsewhere, notably in Arnaut Daniel and in Guido, and in Dante, where Christina herself would have found them. Still there is no denying that there is less of the ore rotundo in Christina’s work than in that of her contemporaries, and that there is also in Hueffer’s writing a clear descent from such passages as:

I listened to their honest chat:

     Said one: ‘To-morrow we shall be
Plod plod along the featureless sands
     And coasting miles and miles of sea’
Said one: ‘Before the turn of tide
     We will achieve the eyrie-seat.’
Said one: ‘To-morrow shall be like
     To-day, but much more sweet.’

We find the qualities of what some people are calling ‘the modern cadence’ in this strophe, also in:

Sometimes I said: ‘It is an empty name
     I long for; to a name why should I give
The peace of all the days I have to live?’—
     Yet gave it all the same. [6]

Pound does not discuss here, however, what “qualities” of cadence those are nor how they are modern. Nor does he discuss precisely what “man” is being asked for “faculties” that “he” does not possess—since Pound just has acknowledged, however grudgingly, that “Christina” has “the ultimate qualities of style.” In any case, the discussion ends here. Pound’s near approaches, glancing blows, his simultaneous awareness and denial of Rossetti’s relevance: these elements of the essay stage a convincing performance of the internal struggle between prejudice and poetic value, with the former winning only by quitting the game.

Virginia Woolf: “I am Christina Rossetti” (1930)

Not surprisingly, Virginia Woolf approaches Christina Rossetti from a markedly different standpoint. The quotation with which she titles her essay “I am Christina Rossetti” looks much like a radical claim of identification. Yet the essay begins by an evocation of biography, of the “strangeness, amusement, and oddity of the past sealed within a tank.” [7] Woolf structures her essay such that “Christina”—and she, like Pound, uses the familiar name for much of the essay—emerges first as an odd Victorian character; next, as “a little woman dressed in black” who announces her identity (as quoted in the essay’s title) at a tea-party, and only then, finally, as a poet. Woolf distances Rossetti from the modern by sealing her in the “tank” of Victorian biography even as she proclaims her own self-identification with “little woman” at the tea-party. The opening images of the essay, even if cast here in an ironic light, underscore the tension between the Victorian and the modern woman’s image of herself. To say “I am a poet,” words Woolf ventriloquizes for Rossetti, and to say “I am Christina Rossetti” (a Victorian woman) seems to suggest a conundrum with which Woolf is well acquainted. How to put that past, that context, that identity, together with these words? Woolf dwells on this problem of biography:

How absolute and unaccommodating these poets are! Poetry, they say, has nothing to do with life. Mummies and wombats, Hallam Street and omnibuses, James Collinson and Charles Cayley, sea mice and Mrs. Virtue Tebbs, Torrington Square and Endsleigh Gardens, even the vagaries of religious belief, are irrelevant, extraneous, superfluous, unreal. It is poetry that matters. The only question of any interest is whether that poetry is good or bad. But this question of poetry, one might point out if only to gain time, is one of the greatest difficulty. [8]

Who are these intractable poets of whom she speaks? They seem at once associated with Christina Rossetti and with the more modern school of pure poetics we would more likely associate with Woolf’s own contemporaries. But is Woolf agreeing with them? Or suggesting that Rossetti can best be understood in context, or that she cannot be removed from the context in which she wrote? If she means, as she later speculates, “[b]etter perhaps read for oneself, expose the mind bare to the poem, and transcribe in all its haste and imperfection whatever may be the result of the impact,” then why the relentless first pages of quaint Victorian context?

Woolf then goes on to recapitulate many a Victorian truism about not just Rossetti, but women’s poetry generally: “You were an instinctive poet… Years and the traffic of the mind with men and books did not affect you in the least… Your instinct was so sure, so direct, so intense that it produced poems that sing like music in one’s ear…” [9]. Woolf’s admiration of and identification with Rossetti is sincere; it is itself affecting. But just as we might expect from an essay by one woman writer that announces its identity as another woman writer (but in quotes), this essay betrays a tremendous uncertainty about how to read a Victorian woman’s formalism: it must be instinctive—but it seems it cannot be. Woolf claims that “[t]he judgement of contemporaries is almost always wrong” but goes on to cite nineteenth-century critical readings that resonate powerfully with the values espoused by poetic modernism. One she draws from “Professor Saintsbury”:

The meter of the principal poem [‘Goblin Market’] may be best described as a dedoggerelized Skeltonic, with the gathered music of the various metrical progress since Spenser, utilized in the place of the wooden rattling of the followers of Chaucer. There may be discerned in it the same inclination towards line irregularity which has broken out, at different times, in the Pindaric of the late seventeenth and earlier eighteenth centuries, and in the rhymlessness of Sayers earlier and of Mr Arnold later;

The other from (a later) Sir Walter Raleigh: “I think she is the best poet alive… The worst of it is you cannot lecture on really pure poetry….” [10] On the one hand, we have the valorization of metrical collage, of what we might, with Gilbert and Gubar, call “the twin strategies of excavation and innovation”; on the other, an invocation of “pure poetry.” Yet Woolf eschews both of these “Victorian” assessments that nonetheless seem much in keeping with modernist poetic values for her own epithet “instinctive,” a ubiquitous Victorian critical truism about women’s poetry. Ultimately, however, Woolf abandons this rhetoric too, or rather moderates it—and all this in the second person, addressed to the same “Christina Rossetti” the essay identifies itself as somehow being:

…you were not a pure saint by any means. You pulled legs; you tweaked noses. You were at war with all humbug and pretence. Modest as you were, still you were drastic, sure of your gift, convinced of your vision. A firm hand pruned your lines; a sharp ear tested their music. [11]

Pointed, disruptive play is not the province of birdsong; nor is editing, although the strangely disembodied “firm hand” that “prunes” is nonetheless at some distance from the natural outgrowth of the song. Finally, Woolf’s rhetoric (quietly) distances Rossetti’s poetic output from yet another set of clichés that cluster around women’s poetry: “Nothing soft, otiose, irrelevant cumbered your pages.” Poetry that was not “soft” and yet, was by a woman: Woolf makes the same discovery that caused Pound some little distress. “In a word,” as Woolf writes, accepting the equation of “soft” and “irrelevant” and, implicitly, of “hardness” and “art,” “you were an artist.” The next lines of the essay find Woolf herself struggling to put this conundrum together:

And thus was kept open, even when you wrote idly, tinkling bells for your own diversion, a pathway for the descent of that fiery visitant who came now and then and fused your lines into that indissoluble connexion which no hand can put asunder… Indeed so strange is the constitution of things, and so great the miracle of poetry, that some of the poems you wrote in your little back room will be found adhering in perfect symmetry when the Albert Memorial is dust and tinsel.

It seems that the “idly tinkling bells” of women’s writing can be visited by the (genderless?) muse of poetry that can “fuse” lines into “indissoluble” (not liquid, not wet) poetry, and that through this miracle, even we moderns can understand a Victorian woman poet who wrote lines that will “adhere” beyond the life of the most monumental of Victorian shrines.

Woolf ends her essay with a speculation that, had she been present for Rossetti’s declaration, she “should certainly have committed some indiscretion… in the awkward ardour of my admiration.” Woolf is aware of and confronts her own awkwardness as a modern writer identifying with a Victorian poetess: she offers her own essay as awkward, and if she has not worked out all the terms of that awkwardness, we can nonetheless applaud her for offering it to posterity. But the extent of this awkwardness should not be forgotten, for who more than Woolf would be likely to embrace Rossetti as a sister, and not a maiden aunt? Yet ultimately, she can not even give “Christina” complete credit for her own poems: for how could “a little woman in black”; “tinkling” “a bell” for “diversion” have written poems of “perfect symmetry”? Pound’s and Woolf’s reactions to Rossetti offer a poignant reminder of the very great extent to which reading, like writing, takes place within a strongly gendered framework—and how difficult it may be to escape this framework, even with the best intentions. Pound claimed modernism and form as masculine but he also seems more than a little blinded by his own issues with sperm (this is his joke, after all). Why should feminist critics continue to accept his attitudes about women and poetic form at face value? Furthermore, the questions Pound raises but does not pose—what makes Rossetti modern, and what has prevented readers from seeing her as such—are key to a renewed debate about reevaluating modernist poetics with relation to women writers. In reading these essays, we see how this same gendered framework has both denied and demonstrated Rossetti’s importance in the development and reception of a modern poetics, and how it has done the same for its own intractable influence, both then and now.


[1] Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, No Man’s Land: The place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, Vol. 1: The War of the Words (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988) 156.

[2] As quoted by Wayne Koestenbaum in “The Waste Land: Eliot’s and Pound’s Collaboration on Hysteria” in Double Talk: The Erotics of Male Literary Collaboration (New York: Routledge, 1989) 122. This essay provides a detailed account of the collaboration’s gendered and sexualized rhetoric.

[3] Gilbert and Gubar, 156.

[4] As quoted in Koestenbaum, 121.

[5] “The Hard and Soft in French Poetry” (1918) in Ezra Pound, Literary Essays (Westport: Greenwood, 1979) 286.

[6].“The Prose Tradition in Verse” (1914), Pound, 373-4.

[7] “I am Christina Rossetti” (1930) in Virginia Woolf, Collected Essays, Vol. 4 (London: Hogarth 1967) 56.

[8] Woolf, 57.

[9] Woolf, 57.

[10] Woolf, 57-58.

[11] Woolf, 58.

BIO: Anne Jamison is lecturer in English at Princeton University. Her recently completed book manuscript Form as Transgression: Structuring a Modern Poetics focuses on the interplay of gender and nationality in the construction of modernist poetics and aesthetics and includes further work on Christina Rossetti. She has published articles on Baudelaire and Kafka, and her translation of Glorious Nemesis by the Czech writer Ladislav Klima is forthcoming from Twisted Spoon Press.

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