Rossetti, the “‘Immurata’ Sister”

Despite being a successful female writer during the mid-nineteenth century and facing social stigmas imposed on women during this time, Christina Rossetti’s poetry does not neatly fit into a feminist framework. Instead, Rossetti simultaneously upholds and criticizes the prescribed gender norms within anti-feminist ideologies. In her poem “An ‘Immurata’ Sister”, Rossetti accepts certain gendered stereotypes as fact, but then depicts death as an escape from these gender norms. By presenting death as a much –desired escape from the stereotype that women are more emotional than men, a stereotype that she accepts as true, Rossetti complicates what it means to be a feminist; she shows that acceptance and discontent can both exist with regards to societal gender norms

While Rossetti largely focuses on themes of life and death in “An ‘Immurata’ Sister”, she first centers her poem around the claim that “men work and think” while “women feel” (517, l. 5). Rossetti separates men and women based on their traditional gender roles and expectations, and consequently reduces women to their emotions rather than their thoughts, actions, and achievements. She complicates this claim in the following lines, however, by writing that because she is a woman characterized by feelings, “[she] should be glad to die” and cease from experiencing all of her complex, womanly feelings (517, l. 6-7). The next four lines begin with the same phrase “And cease from”, followed by a vast array of emotions ranging from hope to dread to pain; her use of anaphora amplifies the word “cease” and emphasizes the absence of these emotions upon death. In the beginning of the second stanza, Rossetti accepts the stereotype that “women feel”, but by the end of this stanza, she implies that death and the absence of feeling are the only way to escape this gender stereotype and achieve true peace. This thematic disconnect in the second stanza reflects her ideological disconnect regarding feminist and patriarchal ideals. Despite acknowledging the relief that will come from death and the absence of stereotypical, feminine emotions, Rossetti never strays from accepting patriarchal gender stereotypes as fact.

The disconnect between these two ideologies leaves death as the only way to escape these conflicting ideas about women and gender. Based on these lived experiences, Rossetti describes both an “empty world and empty I!” (518, l. 23). The world, which acts as the environment for gender power dynamics and stereotypes, and Rossetti herself, who experiences the effects of gender power dynamics and stereotypes, are both “empty” due to their involvement with the oppression of women. Death, however, lacks this “emptiness” because it is uncontrollable and therefore free from gender oppression. Rossetti’s depicted struggle between life and death, then, parallels her ideological struggle between gender norms and gender freedom.


The Kersh and Skalak Mash-up Extravaganza

Prior to the era of Victorian poetry, the genre of medieval romance had flourished in Europe from around the eleventh to the fifteenth century. Having taken several medieval literature classes with Professor Skalak and being somewhat knowledgeable on the subject, I found the parallels between thirteenth century Arthurian romances and Alfred Tennyson’s nineteenth century “The Lady of Shalott ” especially interesting. Throughout his poem, Tennyson draws on traditional medieval tropes and references famous medieval icons, like Sir Lancelot and Camelot, to critique the subjugation of women in the nineteenth century; framing the narrative of his poem hundreds of years before the time period of his criticism allows Tennyson distance from his otherwise obtuse commentary on the repression of female agency. 

Tennyson establishes the Lady of Shalott’s lack of agency throughout the first three parts of the poem. Despite being the main character of the narrative, the Lady of Shalott, trapped within “four gray walls, and four gray towers” on a desolate island, remains unnamed and unknown to everyone else; the poem’s narrator rhetorically asks, “who hath seen her wave her hand?” and “is she known in all the land?” to emphasize the Lady’s isolation and invisibility (134). While she is trapped in the physical space of her tower, she is also trapped emotionally by a curse that prohibits her from directly looking at the outside world. Instead of seeing and interacting with the outside world, the Lady has no choice but to stay in her tower, watch the world through a mirror, and weave. Many traditional medieval romances also employ this “damsel in distress” (and often trapped in a tower) trope, such as Marie de France’s “Yonec” and Chrétien de Troyes’s The Knight with the Lion, to depict female helplessness and the necessity of male saviors. By falling under the subjugation of a mystical curse and being characterized similarly to the “damsel in distress” trope, the Lady of Shalott experiences repression similar to that of women in nineteenth century Europe. In both instances, the women are expected to stay inside, engage in traditionally feminine activities like weaving, and avoid certain social interactions- especially those of a sexual or romantic nature. 

The Lady does not remain helpless or without agency for the entire poem, however. Upon observing a knight, Sir Lancelot, through her mirror, the Lady’s intense feelings of attraction compel her to act. Tennyson describes the Lady’s actions in successive order, as “she left the web… [and] the loom”, “she made three paces thro’ the room”, “she saw the water lily bloom…[and] the helmet and the plume”, and “she looked down to Camelot” (137). The use of anaphora, through the repetition of the phrases “she left”, “she made”, “she saw”, and “she looked”, amplifies the verbs that signify the Lady’s actions and agency. Ironically, the Lady only develops this sense of agency in response to a man, and acting upon it triggers her curse and leads to her death. Unlike traditional medieval romances, the Lady of Shalott is not saved by a man or knight and instead attempts to save herself. Her death, then, acts as a punishment for her earlier displays of independent agency. The Lady cannot win- remaining without agency means being unhappily trapped in a tower, but developing agency and leaving the tower leads to her death. Reading “The Lady of Shalott” as a double poem that criticizes the oppression of nineteenth century women shows the lack of attention given to women’s desires and capabilities, as well as the negative repercussions for challenging these gender norms.

Christabel’s inverted gender roles

Although Coleridge explicitly depicts traditional gender roles and dynamics in the first half of “Christabel”, he inverts these gender norms in the second half of the poem through the characterization of Christabel and her relationship with Geraldine. The speaker introduces Christabel as a well-off young woman with dreams of meeting a knight and falling in love; the speaker repeatedly uses the phrase “lovely lady” when first describing or referring to Christabel (l. 23, 38, 47). The alliterative nature of this phrase emphasizes the soft, light “L” sound, which exudes the same daintiness that thus far characterizes Christabel. Additionally, the word “lovely” has feminine connotations within the gender binary due to the beauty and mannerism standards for women; Christabel, then, is considered lovely due to her adherence to traditional gender standards. The phrase “lovely lady” ultimately situates her well within the traditional gender expectations for women. 

In the poem, Christabel leaves the castle to pray under a tree when she meets Geraldine. Meeting Geraldine and learning about her situation initiates Christabel’s shift from fulfilling a traditionally feminine gender role to a more masculine one. Because Geraldine, who the speaker repeatedly characterizes as “faint and sweet”, describes being captured by a group of men, she portrays the “damsel in distress” trope (l. 68, 73). Christabel, by saving Geraldine and taking her to safety, then acts as the savior of the damsel in distress. Traditionally, a knight or other prominent male figure fulfills this savior role, but having Christabel save the damsel inverts gender roles and shows a sense of female agency. By physically lifting Geraldine over the gate, tending to Geraldine’s needs, and eventually sleeping with her, Christabel’s displays of agency subtly align with the traditionally masculine traits of physical strength and sexual prowess. This implies that although Christabel has agency, the only legitimate form of agency is that which stems from traditionally masculine values. The consequences of Christabel’s agency also promote this patriarchal ideology, as it becomes clear that the “damsel in distress” being saved is actually some sort of witch, demon, or other dangerous and mystical being. Considering her true identity, Geraldine gaining access to Christabel’s home has dangerous implications, and it is due to Christbel’s displays of agency that Geraldine has this access in the first place. Therefore, Christabel’s inverted gender roles does more harm than good and reinforces the idea that women should not stray from their expected gender roles. 

Christian Divinety and Slavery

Although most literature from the Romantic period did not engage with or challenge popular religious ideology, writers still used religious references and comparisons to enhance their ideas about humankind and sublime experiences. Both William Blake, in “The Divine Image” from Songs of Innocence, and Ann Yearsley, in “Death of Luco”, reference Christianity, however Blake emphasizes religious divinity in the ordinary world while Yearsley criticizes religious hypocrisy. Using a religious lens to examine these two poems highlight the distinction between what Christianity should represent, and what it actually represents. 

In “The Divine Image”, Blake conceptualizes four main tenets of Christianity- mercy, pity, peace, and love- as parts of a divine being as well as parts of a human being. He writes that these virtues are both “God our father dear” and “man, his child and care” (l. 6-8). Mercy, pity, peace, and love inherently have divine connotations in the Church, as it is believed that only God can perfectly uphold these virtues, but Blake explicitly personifies these virtues to show their presence across humanity. Blake writes that “Mercy has a human heart”, “Pity, a human face”, “Love, the human form”, and “Peace, the human dress”; he intentionally capitalizes each virtuous word to emphasize its importance and transcendental nature (l. 13-16). By describing the presence of these otherwise divinely religious concepts in average human forms, Blake challenges the strict separation between God’s perfection and humanity’s imperfection. This optimistic perspective suggests that the religious ideals of mercy, pity, peace, and love, while divine in concept, are ordinary in appearance and can be found within “every man of every clime” (l. 13). Rather than reserving Christianity for only the most pious individuals, Blake supports the notion that anyone and everyone can participate in the Christian faith. 

As a part of the collection Songs of Innocence, the inclusive Christianity depicted in “The Divine Image” represents an idealistic, and even naive, understanding of Christianity rather than the reality. Yearsley, however, presents a less idealistic depiction of Christianity in “Death of Luco”. This poem tells the story of Luco, an enslaved man, and the violent and hateful actions directed toward him by his Christian slave owners. Yearsley explicitly refers to Luco’s master as the “remorseless Christian” and the “rude Christian”, and she later extends her criticism to all of slave owners that “dare avow to God” (l. 253, 259, 285). Her criticism of slave-owning Christians speaks to the hypocrisy of those who believe in a kind, forgiving God while simultaneously owning, torturing, raping, and killing enslaved human beings. Unlike Blake’s depiction of Christianity, Yearsley uses the sociopolitical issue of slavery to contextualize the contradictory reality of Christianity. Therefore, Blake presents the perfect image of Christianity, based upon God’s divinity and the principles of mercy, pity, peace, and love, and Yearsley describes the same Christianity, only after it has been appropriated by humankind. Where Blake shows humanity’s potential for divine goodness, then, Yearsley shows humanity’s actual dismissal of divine goodness.

Nature vs Man in “Lines Written in Early Spring”

     In his poem “Lines Written in Early Spring”, Wordsworth contrasts the natural world’s serenity with mankind’s conflict to grapple with the disconnect between humans and Nature. Despite recognizing the inherent “link” between humans and Nature, Wordsworth contrasts his “sweet mood” and “pleasant thoughts” toward nature with his “sad thoughts” toward mankind (l. 3-5). To explain these “pleasant thoughts”, Wordsworth articulates the beauty in the natural world through written imagery and description, but he also emphasizes this beauty through the poem’s meter and rhyme scheme. Each of the six stanzas in this poem includes four lines that follow an ABAB rhyme scheme; each stanza also includes a combination of iambic tetrameter and  iambic trimeter, which perpetuates a natural rhythm comparable to a heartbeat or a breath. The combination of a consistent rhyme scheme and iambic meter, then, affects the sound of the poem so that it emulates the same fluidity and beauty as the natural world. Wordsworth uses his own figurative language to depict the pleasures of the natural world, but also using poetic structure and sound to do so invites the reader to experience these pleasures as well. 

     Wordsworth explicitly describes some of the beautiful and enjoyable aspects of nature, such as the blossoming flowers and singing birds, and refers to these pleasures as being “heaven… sent” and a part of “Nature’s holy plan” (l. 21-22). By including religious allusions in his understanding of Nature, Wordsworth implies the natural world’s spiritual importance. Nature is not just an environment, then, but rather a transcendental feeling and experience of great tranquility, beauty, and pleasure. The beauty and spirituality of Nature, however, does not align with the material world and “what man has made of man” (l. 8). Although Wordsworth never directly explains “what man has made of man”, the historical context of his poem makes it likely that this line refers to the negative consequences of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. The French Revolution showed humankind’s ability to harm each other, while the Industrial Revolution showed humankind’s ability to harm Nature. Both events showed a great contrast between Nature’s intrinsic pleasurability and humankind’s violence. Wordsworth does not criticize this dichotomy between nature and humans, however. Instead, he ends the poem questioning if he even can “lament” the actions and effects of humankind while living as a part of “Nature’s holy plan” (l. 21-24). This rhetorical question shows that, even at the end of the poem, he continues to grapple with the meaning of Nature and humanity’s role within it. Whether or not the spiritual aspects of Nature are strong enough to overcome the laments of humanity, then, remains up to the reader to decide. 

**Note- referenced poem from, so it is NOT the original edition as seen in the Penguin Book of Romantic Poetry.