Saturday, November 15, 2008

Who is Christina Rossetti?

Christina Rossetti represented, as best I could discern, the feminist interpretation of the Decalogue. While to more modern sensibilities, her views seem rather tame, a colleague of mine pointed out that to her own time (late 19th-century Britain), she was probably quite progressive. An example of this is the way that Rossetti looked at the temptations of Adam and Eve. Whereas Eve was tempted by Satan, Adam was tempted by Eve. Thus, Rossetti concluded that Eve’s temptation was one of the mind, and Adam’s temptation was one of the heart. In Victorian England, this sort of perspective starkly contrasted popular ideas about masculine and feminine strengths and weaknesses.

Dr Timothy Larsen from Wheaton College presented Rossetti’s views on the Decalogue, drawn mainly from her work, Letter and Spirit: Notes on the Commandments. By this time in the conference I felt I had discerned a number of the major questions that interpreters of the Decalogue have asked through the centuries. However, I found few answers to those questions in this presentation. This may be due to the fact that much of Rossetti’s work was poetry, not prose. Perhaps her most famous poem is “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Dr Larsen pointed us to another poem of hers called, “No Thank You, John.” That is, essentially a “Dear John” letter.

But I gathered very little about how Rossetti interpreted the Decalogue. The presentation itself seemed to emphasize her personal biography more than focusing on her views surrounding the Decalogue.

One of Rossetti’s contributions to this history of interpretation was her unique perspective as a woman. Dr Larsen summed it up well when he said that Rossetti’s modus operandi seemed to ask “What does the woman see that a man simply does not or cannot see?” Much of Rossetti’s interpretation, Dr Larsen said, read the Decalogue in typological and allegorical terms.

She drew many, many of her examples from the Biblical accounts of all sorts of women, named and unnamed. Her knowledge of them seems extensive, possibly unparalleled. Her work bleeds with these sorts of references. Beyond that even, her allusions to Biblical events and stories throughout her work reveals a knowledge and reverence for Scripture that is staggering, covering every book in the Bible.

Rossetti was a name I did not know prior to this conference. Her work and life are interesting and deserving of further inquiry. I leave that task to you, gentle reader.

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