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Poetry of Protest: An Exploration of Christina Rossetti and Gerard Manley Hopkins

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It is not difficult to see the parallels in the lives and works of Christina Rossetti and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Both poets suffered bouts of depression, both were involved in the Tractarian movement – with Hopkins converting to Roman Catholicism and Rossetti remaining High Anglican – and both used their medium to fuse religiosity with personal struggles. Nevertheless, these similarities within a shared poetic genre, which is often considered to uphold “a uniform world-view or ideological focus”[i], make potential differences between the poets all the more distinct. While Rossetti favours protest through subtext and silence, Hopkins externalises his fiery emotions onto a poetic landscape. The extent to which both poets display protest in their works can be explored through how their poetry challenges gender norms of the era, the poetic form itself, and how this interacted with their religious convictions. While Rossetti was certainly ambivalence towards contemporary issues such as women’s rights, her religious vocabulary acts as a tool for agency, particularly in critiquing the dynamics of male female relations. Likewise, although Hopkins protests against established poetic rules in his experimentation with form and metre, his poetry conforms to rigid structures arguably for an almost curative effect.

An initial way of assessing the extent to which Rossetti and Hopkins write poems of protest, is through exploring how their work responds to societal norms, in particular gender roles. While she claimed to not be one for “politics and philanthropy”[ii] and her views on issues such as female suffrage were conflicted, Rossetti’s poetry excels at is the critique of power dynamics in personal relationships between men and women, often through reference to religion. The narrator of “Twice”, for example, is shown to find agency from her unrequited lover through newfound faith. The poem demonstrates one of Rossetti’s common motifs of hearts acting as almost literalised metaphors, with second stanza beginning “you took my heart in your hand”. This display of vulnerability makes the line “as you set it down it broke” all the more vivid. The first few stanzas imply that the narrator’s sense of sense is intrinsically tied with how her potential lover views her, as she is dependent on his attention and continues to “smile” in spite of her emotional turmoil. This turmoil and anger is only hinted at (“Broke, but I did not wince”), and is ultimately left unexpressed within the poem – Rossetti restricts the reader mainly to visual metaphor. Rather, the narrator gains agency over the situation through appeal to God who is shown to take her heart and “refine with fire its gold”, giving her the willpower to “live”: the shift from romantic to spiritual reflected in a shift from past to present tense. Rossetti shows that through devotion it is possible to gain a sense of self separate from the male gaze. Nevertheless, the question remains as to whether the narrator of “Twice” has simply moved from one patriarchal male figure to another in the form of God, as the poem arguably ends on a tone of repression: “but shall not question much”. This was a concern that plagued a lot of early feminist critique of her works that stressed that her faith restricted her artistic potential; Virginia Woolf went as far to say that “if I were to bring a case against God, she would be one of the first witnesses I should call.”[iii] Yet the poem is indicative of two common messages within Rossetti’s poetry, firstly that defiance against controlling male figures can be achieved through devotion to God, and secondly that this defiance can be shown best in what is left unspoken or is hinted at. Silence as a form of protest may appear contradictory but pervades much of her poetry, including her non-devotional works. For example, in her seminal piece “Goblin Market” the character Lizzie survives the wrath of Goblin Men through her closed lips: “Lizzie utter’d not a word”. Within many of the poems themselves there is an unspoken subtext, as is evident in her famous work “Remember” with the line “you told me of our future that you planned”, hinting at an unequal power dynamic between men and women through the use of the second person pronoun “you” dominating the first person “our” suggesting the narrator’s future is constricted and defined by her male lover, ironic for a poem that is often read at funerals for its reflections on romantic love. To criticise Rossetti’s poetry for its silence and ambiguity is to misunderstand her philosophy, her critiques may be hidden within the language – or lack of it – of the poem itself. Indeed, the final line of Twice is qualified with the adverb “much”, suggesting the narrator has not completely committed herself to a life without questions.

In contrast to Rossetti’s protestation through silence, Hopkins’s inner turmoil explodes onto the pages of his poetry, for example in his piece “Carrion Comfort”, “Despair” actually becomes a source of meagre sustenance as the title suggests. Here the narrator externalises his emotions onto the world around him helping him to deal with a crisis of faith. He laments “cry I can no more, I can; can something, hope, wish day to come, not choose not to be.” The repetition of the word “can” in different contexts, being used in a negative, positive and hypothetical way, suggests the fluctuating nature of language resembles his fluctuating emotions. Perhaps through the process of writing the poem itself, Hopkins is able to process his internal conflict through language and build some sort of resilience to it. Unlike Rossetti who is inclined to silence, Hopkins articulately and protests against his own thought processes. Akin to the healing of the narrator of Twice, this is achieved through relationship with God but unlike Rossetti’s poem this relationship is in a state of conflict, as the narrator claims “I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my god”. This conflict is also reflected in Hopkins’ use of sprung rhythm, contrasting with the typically rigid metric rules of the Petrarchan sonnet. The breaking of metric norms has been linked by some critics to Hopkins’s own biography including his conversion to Roman Catholicism – an act which in itself was a form of protest at a time when “Catholic ritual and devotions were treated as strange practices, but also bad art”[iv]. By putting himself in a marginalised position Hopkins’s writes from a minority viewpoint, constructing a poetic identity through his metric non-conventionality; arguably it is this rejection of poetic practices that saw the revival of interest in his poetry during the experimentation of early modernism. However perhaps it is paradoxical to call Hopkins’s poetry which is so often self-deprecating, a form of protest: in many ways, he conforms to strict religious orthodoxy and obedience through his asceticism. For example, even a poem that acts mainly as an appraisal of God such as “Thee God, I Come From” references are made to repentance such as “spare thou me” and “I sinned / I repent of what I did”. Some critics such as Julia F Saville argue that Hopkins’s asceticism is an outlet for his struggles with his sexuality, using his relationship with young poet Digby Mackworth Dolben as distinct evidence of his love for men. After a meeting with Digby, Hopkins’s diary follows: “No pudding on Sundays. No tea except if to keep me awake and then without sugar. Meat only once a day.”[v] This homoerotic subtext is displayed in the poem “I wake and feel” whereby the lamentation of letters meant for “dearest him” is merged alongside a perversion of the Eucharist imagery: “bitter would have me taste: my taste was me”. Taking this approach, the link between the self-flagellating aesthetic of Hopkins’s poetry and his homosexual desires cannot be overstated. Saville goes as far as to argue that sprung rhythm itself “is an effect of “Hopkins poetics of homoerotic asceticism.”[vi] In this context Hopkins’s defies the societal roles of an anti-Catholic, heteronormative society, forming a minority identity in his religion and queerness that is expressed in the language and rhythm of his poems, writing before a concept of gay identity had even been formed.

Arguably the rejection of norms by Rossetti and Hopkins is reflected in the form of their poetry itself, in particular their use of the sonnet. This is seen most clearly by Rossetti in Monna Innominata which deals with the relationship between artist and muse through exploring the dynamic between Dante and Beatrice and Petrarch and Laura. The structure of the individual sonnets remains regular, strictly following Petrarchan form, however taken together as a “macro sonnet” the fourteen poems work as a parody of the tradition. The effect of this parody is what critic Anthony Harrison calls “liberating the muse”[vii]. This is shown through the provision of a voice to Beatrice and Laura, challenging the typical subject matter of sonnets written for centuries – mainly – by men. In the final stanza, the muse is laments that with her“youth and beauty gone” all that remains is

“A silent heart whose silence loves and longs;
The silence of a heart which sang its songs”

Again, Rossetti uses the motif of silence to protest ideas of male female relations, here the treatment of the muse is challenged for its superficiality which results in a heart that “sang its songs”. Ironically, while much of her work thrives off of a musical aesthetic, perhaps the reason Rossetti uses silence so frequently is to protest against the limitations of the poetic form. This is seen in works such as “Echo”, where the narrator attempts to recreate her lover through poetic memory. These attempts prove to be futile resulting in only “the speaking silence of a dream”; the oxymoronic suggestion being that while poetic form can imitate it is unable to fully replicate. Likewise, in “Memory” the narrator claims life “centres” around “a blessed memory on a throne” – an imitation of reality which remains insufficient until the prospect of actual Paradise occurs. To Rossetti, Paradise is ultimately only achievable after a period of “Soul-sleep”, an Adventist doctrine that argued that upon death the soul enters a period of rest until The Last Judgement; arguably her poems are not solely of protest but represent what Jerome McGann calls a “strategic withdrawal”[viii] from the world. Indeed in a poem such as “From The Antique” seasons become repetitive and cyclical, “still the seasons come and go”, yet rather than obtaining agency the disengaged female narrator simply laments “I wish and I wish I were a man”. While her poetry does challenge societal norms, the pervading sense of melancholy and weariness within much of her work arguably centres on a view of the material world as superficial in the face of the afterlife.

Despite her experiments with form, Rossetti was seen by many writers of the early 20th century as a poet who lacked intellectual rigour, with critic Stuart Curran arguing that she “falls back on pretty language, the bane of so many female poets.”[ix] In rejection of this simplistic assessment, arguably Rossetti exhibits experimentation not only with her language but with the limitations of the ‘poem’ itself. In contrast to her reception, Hopkin’s experimentation with sonnet form was considered revolutionary by many modernists, for example F.R. Leavis proclaimed he was “one of the most remarkable technical innovators who ever wrote”[x]. Perhaps most notable is his invention of the curtal sonnet which attempts to make the form even more succinct. This is evidenced in Pied Beauty, a poem that through its form attempts to muster the “glory” of God, through an almost pantheistic approach to the natural world, within a neat package of 11 lines. Nevertheless, for a poet that was hailed by some modernists as a “contemporary”[xi] born into the wrong era, arguably the choice of sonnet form has a restrictive effect on his poetry, indeed the curtal sonnet has been noticed for its interest in precise mathematical proportions[xii]. Arguably the use of such rigid forms allows Hopkins to construct meaning onto to a world plagued by his own depression, arguably using poetic form for its curative properties rather than an attempt to protest the nature of poetry itself. Even in his poems that do not adhere to sonnet form such as “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire” and of the Resurrection, the use of such specific rhythms and metric beats highlights a search for order within a firey world of “torn tufts” and “tossed pillows”. This is not to suggest that Hopkins’ was not an innovator, but rather that his work did not exist on a plane that was epochs ahead of Rossetti – both tested the boundaries of poetry albeit through alternative means. As critic Jill Muller argues, Hopkins was a “conservative revolutionary”[xiii] and arguably the same can be said for Rossetti. Hopkins and Rossetti use poetry as a way to fuse their alienation from societal expectations with their devout religiosity, in the former this results in a form of homoerotic asceticism while the latter critiques the power dynamics between men and women. In Rossetti’s works, language, and crucially the absence of language, is used as a way of experimenting with established forms such as the Petrarchan sonnet, advocating a form of protestation through silence. In contrast Hopkins experiments with the alteration of these forms themselves, to project structure onto a world plagued by his emotional turmoil. While Rossetti can be accused of withdrawing from the world due to her faith, Hopkins arguably creates his own solipsistic world. Nevertheless, both poets illustrate how religious poetry is not inherently static but rather provides a viable outlet for subverting both societal expectations and the poetic form itself.

Endnotes

[i] J. McGann “The Religious Poetry of Christina Rossetti” Critical Inquiry Vol. 10, Chicago Press, 1983, p126
[ii] J Marsh, Christina Rossetti: A Literary Biography. Jonathon Cape ltd. 1994, p432
[iii] V Woolf, The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume 5: 1929 – 1932, Mariner Books, 2010. p313
[iv] M. Moran, Catholic Sensationalism and Victorian Literature. Liverpool University Press, 2007. P205
[v] R Martin, Gerald Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life. Faber and Faber 2011. p113
[vi] J. Saville A Queer Chivalry: The Homoerotic Asceticism of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Virginia Press. 2009 p5
[vii] A. Harrison Christina Rossetti in Context, North Carolina Press 1988, p101
[viii] J. McGann “The Religious Poetry of Christina Rossetti” Critical Inquiry Vol. 10, Chicago Press, 1983, p127
[ix] S. Curran, “The Lyric Voice of Christina Rossetti” Victorian Poetry Vol 9. 1971
[x] J. Muller, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Victorian Catholicism: A Heart in Hiding, Taylor & Francis 2003, p1
[xi] J. Muller, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Victorian Catholicism: A Heart in Hiding, Taylor & Francis 2003, p3
[xii] E. Schneider, “The Wreck of the Deutschland: A New Reading,” PMLA, Vol. 81, No. 1. (Mar., 1966), pp. 110-122.
[xiii] J. Muller, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Victorian Catholicism: A Heart in Hiding, Taylor & Francis 2003, p4

Bibliography

Curran S. (1971) “The Lyric Voice of Christina Rossetti” Victorian Poetry Vol 9.

Harrison A. (1988) Christina Rossetti in Context, North Carolina Press p101

Marsh J. (1994) Christina Rossetti: A Literary Biography. Jonathon Cape ltd, p432

Martin R. (2011), Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life. Faber and Faber. p113

McGann J. (1983) “The Religious Poetry of Christina Rossetti” Critical Inquiry Vol. 10, Chicago Press, p127

Moran M. (2007) Catholic Sensationalism and Victorian Literature. Liverpool University Press, P205

Muller J (2003) Gerard Manley Hopkins and Victorian Catholicism: A Heart in Hiding, Taylor & Francis 2003, p1

Saville J. (2009) A Queer Chivalry: The Homoerotic Asceticism of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Virginia Press. p5

Schneider E. (1966), The Wreck of the Deutschland: A New Reading, PMLA, Vol. 81, pp. 110-111

Woolf V. (2010) The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume 5: 1929 – 1932, Mariner Books. p313

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GradesFixer, 2018. Poetry of Protest: An Exploration of Christina Rossetti and Gerard Manley Hopkins. [online] Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/poetry-of-protest-an-exploration-of-christina-rossetti-and-gerard-manley-hopkins/> [Accessed 11 July 2020].
GradesFixer. Poetry of Protest: An Exploration of Christina Rossetti and Gerard Manley Hopkins [Internet]. GradesFixer; 2018 [cited 2018 May 22]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/poetry-of-protest-an-exploration-of-christina-rossetti-and-gerard-manley-hopkins/
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