If you’ve ever played the Game of Life, you’ll know it’s hard to feel like you’re losing. Players choose a college or career path, get paid a salary, and set off through life spinning little wheels to acquire experiences, pets, pay, spouses, pay, houses, and more pay. There are no affairs, wrong decisions, illnesses or serious losses, only relative degrees of prosperity. When everyone’s assets are totted up at the end – houses are worth more than spouses, pets more than children – the player with the most cash gets the largest retirement mansion. Today’s game is a 1960s remake of the Checkered Game of Life, invented by Milton Bradley in 1860, which was itself a reinvention of Elizabeth Newbery and John Wallis’s moralising New Game of Human Life from 1790. The 18th-century version had a snakes-and-ladders set-up: players were sent forward to maturity when they landed on virtues and back to childhood when they landed on vices. It was unplayably boring; the best strategy was to get to the end and die as quickly as possible.
Bradley’s innovation was to make life a chessboard, where players spin a six-sided teetotum and then select a nearby square to occupy. Choosing Perseverance takes you to Success; Gambling sends you to Ruin. ‘The journey of life,’ his instructions tell us, ‘is governed by a combination of chance and judgment, the chance representing the circumstances in life over which we apparently have no control, but which are nevertheless governed to a great extent by the voluntary actions of our past lives.’ Bradley also initiated a system in which players accumulate points as they climb towards the final square, Happy Old Age: Success and Honour are worth five points, but so is Fat Office; Truth or Matrimony are worth nothing. The points scheme forms the basis of the modern game, a consumerist romp which eliminates moral decision. But even the 18th-century version – a Pilgrim’s Progress without the imagination – turned the virtues it extolled into bankable assets. Kindness and fidelity were not moral attributes, just moves that kept you ahead on the board. Whether the destination is salvation or a suburban mansion, the game of life is there to be won, and won on your own.
Christina Rossetti’s poems dwell on those who are unable to play. Lives are ‘void and brief/And tedious in the barren dusk’ or have been misspent and regretted. Souls are unreachable and unregarded: ‘living unloved’, her Sappho hopes only ‘to die unknown/Unwept, untended, and alone’. The dead sleep on, indifferent (‘I shall not see the shadows,/I shall not feel the rain,’ ‘Song’ promises). Being dead often seems little different to being alive. ‘When I was dead, my spirit turned/To seek the much-frequented house,’ begins ‘At Home’, whose speaker discovers that her former friends are still enjoying themselves and expecting tomorrow to be better, because they have a tomorrow to look forward to:
I shivered comfortless, but cast
No chill across the tablecloth;
I, all-forgotten, shivered, sad
To stay, and yet to part how loth:
I passed from the familiar room,
I who from love had passed away,
Like the remembrance of a guest
That tarrieth but a day.
Rossetti’s spirits are grave, calm; here, the only signs of turmoil are the repeated words and an extra-metrical lingering from that implied stress on the ‘I’ before ‘all-forgotten’. The spirit may now be passing away from love, leaving the friendly room for the last time, or, as the syntax suggests, she may have passed away from love in the first place. In any event, being dead means learning to live with your own oblivion. In Wisdom 5:14, the fading memory of the overnight guest is a simile for the hope of the ungodly – like smoke, frost, or air parted by the movement of a bird, it leaves no trace. Quoting this passage, Rossetti’s spirit hints that she had been hoping for the wrong thing in life. If the friends do not mourn her, perhaps they were insensible to her before her death; the afterlife is simply a continuation of her non-existence.
But the process of exposing this with such plangent steadiness leaves an impression that does not evaporate so quickly. The exquisite economy of words is itself a form of reserve, an invitation to sense the chill in the way her friends could not. Many of Rossetti’s dead use their coldness to control the overconfidence of the living: the singer in ‘Song’ urges her lover not to grieve, because, when dead, ‘Haply I may remember,/And haply may forget,’ a casualness which implies that he is not nearly as important as he might think. ‘Remember me,’ another dying lover pleads, before changing her mind:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
He may remember and miss her, if something of her thoughts survives the ‘darkness and corruption’ of death, or he may finally realise how dark and corrupt her thoughts were. Either way, imploring him to remember can only yield a poor outcome. There is power in these acts of withdrawal; chilling the room takes energy. But it is not a competitive power: Rossetti is interested in revealing to the winners the ugliness of the game they are playing, and in asking whether there are ways to live that don’t involve trying to win.
What precipitated Rossetti’s attraction to death-in-life figures has preoccupied her biographers and critics. C.H. Sisson called her ‘in her sobriety … the most naked of poets’, and Rachel Mann’s introduction to this new selection adds that she writes in a ‘tantalising confessional mode’, but no one has ever been certain what life the poems were exposing. She had a happy childhood, by all accounts, but the onset of blindness and increasing paranoia in her father, Gabriele, led to her own teenage breakdown, feelings of intense despair and, according to her brother William, severe self-repression. Withdrawn and unhappy, he recalled, she gave up chess, ‘simply because it made her too eager for a win’. Whether it was the eagerness she feared or the winning, the poems that began to appear in her journals during these miserable years established her lifelong fascination with dead brides, martyrs at the stake and the heartsick. ‘Say not that life is to all/But a gaily coloured pall,/Hiding with its deceitful glow/The hearts that break beneath it,’ she wrote in ‘Hope in Grief’, a poem composed just before her fifteenth birthday. In his biographical portrait, William insisted that the poems’ melancholy had to be understood in light of the fact that his sister was ‘a constant and often sadly-smitten invalid’. Rossetti’s biographer Jan Marsh, however, thought the endless winter scenes and paralysed lives must indicate sexual abuse, which had left a buried self-loathing cruelly reinforced by her Tractarian spirituality.
Rossetti wondered herself at the contrast between her intensely gloomy output and the loving care with which her work was made. The novella ‘Maude: A Story for Girls’, a partial self-portrait which is included in Mann’s selection, begins with the 15-year-old Maude Foster assuring her anxious mother that she is quite all right, while at work on a sonnet whose opening lines are: ‘Yes, I too could face death and never shrink:/But it is harder to bear hated life.’ She concludes her sestet with the idea that ‘to suffer is more than to do,’ after which, we’re told, ‘she yawned, leaned back in her chair, and wondered how she should fill up the time till dinner.’ The daily life and the morbid poetry are out of kilter, and when Maude’s verses are read by her friends, it was to ‘the amazement of everyone what could make her poetry so broken-hearted as was mostly the case’. Some wondered ‘if she really had any secret source of uneasiness’, and here a nicely arched eyebrow is being raised at the reader. In the story, the only sins that might cause Maude unease are her endless self-accusations – which sometimes border on solipsism and make her feel unworthy to attend the Eucharist on Christmas Eve – and a little grumpiness when she is pressed to recite her poems by people who imagine that she must lie awake at night unhappily composing them. She repents of the first, but the second is left to stand. Inevitably, life catches up with art and Maude suffers a long-drawn-out death after a traffic accident, watching from her sofa while all her friends get married or become nuns. For the girl devoted to writing, it seems, there is no future to be imagined. But having no future is also what connects the sonnet’s despair and Maude’s yawn before dinner: the feeling of featureless, empty time stretching ahead. Life is happening to other people, but not to the poet. It is a cry of the buried soul, but it is also a refusal of allotted paths, and an assertion that going nowhere might be an inspiration.
One game Maude does enjoy is bouts-rimés, where players compete to compose sonnets with the same set of end-rhymes. Rossetti could turn out such a sonnet in minutes, and she wanted to play the game in 1849 on a visit to Mansfield to meet the family of her new fiancé, James Collinson. By now, at the age of nineteen, her poems had been accepted in the national press, and after the despair that her father’s illness had cast on the whole household, she was enjoying again the audacious conversation and artistic ambition of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which had brought Collinson into the family circle. And she was engaged, and his family seemed to be pleasant. Marrying an artist like Collinson might not ensure financial security, but it would provide relief from the burden of nursing her father, and allow her to meet the basic Victorian criteria for status and desirability. Away from her talented siblings and the buzz of London, however, Rossetti grew bored. At her request, William supplied a rhyme template and her return letter enclosed ‘a rather intense sonnet, which cannot miss your approbation’:
So I began my walk of life; no stop
Was possible; or else my will was frail;
Or is it that the first stumblings entail
Weakness no after strength has power to prop?
The heart puts forth her boughs; and these we lop
For very wantonness; until the gale
Is rank with blood; then our life-portions fail
And we are fain to share another’s sop.
At first my heart was true and my soul true,
And then the outside world believed me false.
Therefore my sweets grew bitter, and I thrust
Life back, till it stood still and turned to must.
Yet sometimes through the great stagnation calls
Of spirits reach me: is it so with you?
If bouts-rimés was the Rossetti family’s form of psychological divination, this indicated disaster. The engagement to Collinson was broken off, thanks to his wavering desire to join the Roman Catholic Church – which Rossetti’s father considered the Antichrist – and to her own uncertain feelings for her fiancé. But her imagination came up with this catalogue of horrors just as life seemed to be throwing her a six. The experiences of abandonment, rejection and bitter regret that colour so many of the later poems are present here: the speaker cannot stop and cannot mend, and if she does reach out in love, it is only to be brutally repulsed. The gale is ‘rank with blood’, presumably because the boughs are like arms lopped off as they reach to embrace another, and the only recourse is to ‘thrust/Life back, till it stood still’. Bouts-rimés requires a combination of chance and judgment, but the prescribed rhymes, and the fixed order in which they must appear, means the destination of the poem is determined, to some degree, from the outset. Rossetti preferred the end to be known. The skill lay in finding the life, or the line, that led perfectly and inevitably to the end.
This is where Rossetti’s version of Christian faith may have helped as well as hindered. The female Rossettis were devout churchgoers who attended Christ Church, Albany Street, the Tractarian movement’s first church in London. Its priest was William Dodsworth, a warm-hearted and plain-spoken Yorkshireman who had impressed John Henry Newman with his idea that parishes should be based on a sacramental rule of life, and his views on the imminent arrival of the end times. In 1848, Rossetti had been awestruck by Dodsworth’s Advent sermons on the Antichrist, in which he insisted that not to live in the expectation of judgment was folly, ‘when so many things seem to point to the approach of THE GREAT DAY’. The lawlessness of revolutionary politics and the Church’s failure to convert the world were signs that society was entering the last days. Rather than hope for gradual improvements, the true Christian position was ‘one of constant expectation’, knowing ‘the value of eternity, and the nothingness of the world’s highest good’. Marsh and other biographers see these warnings against worldly satisfaction as serving only to encourage the young Rossetti’s tendencies towards self-immolation. If the expected return of Christ would provide fantasy compensation for all her losses on this side of the grave, it would also tacitly justify her continuing to chalk them up. But this could be put more sympathetically. If her imagination could not help lingering on moments of will-less desolation, might not Tractarian spirituality recast this as faith, and so supply the energy that would allow her to keep going? When the praying soul of ‘A Bruised Reed’ is unable even to wish for life, her Lord replies sympathetically, ‘If thou as yet dost neither love, nor hate,/Nor choose, nor wish – resign thyself, be still,’ and to this, the prayer can at least murmur: ‘I do not deprecate.’ And it also allowed the possibility that losing life’s game could be an act of defiance: apocalypticism is above all a form of spirituality at odds with the winners of this world.
We don’t normally think of Tractarianism as an apocalyptic movement. Looking forward to the end times is for wild-eyed sectarians polishing their rifles, while the Tractarian return to ritual order feels like a wish to go back to a time when the Church still had some authority. But the Tractarians’ love of festivals, saints and all other devotions had substantial roots in Newman and Dodsworth’s conviction that Britain was entering the last days, and the figure of the Antichrist was near. Newman had been brought up to think that the Catholic Church was the Antichrist, and never ceased to believe that the Antichrist was at work; his journey towards Catholicism began when he started to wonder whether a society based on utilitarian reason and material progress might not be a better candidate for the enemy. On the pretext of tolerance, Newman felt, Europe’s new political orders were declaring religious truth a matter of private opinion, neither objective nor supernatural, with British dissenters their unwitting advance guard. The apocalyptic Protestantism of Elizabeth I’s time had defined the English Church as a heroic resistance movement against papal oppression. Post-revolutionary 19th-century governments were the secular inheritors of this belief, because they, too, identified resistance to tyranny (rather than, say, social bonding or moral formation) as the highest political virtue, but located tyranny in any religious claim to wider truth beyond those accepted for personal use. Newman’s suspicion was that this spirit of ‘liberalism’ would make religion one leisure option among others, and Tractarianism began, according to the Apologia, when it became time to ‘make the stand which had to be made’.
It was Dodsworth, though, who helped to find the apocalyptic spirituality of the movement. He had attended the Albury Conferences of 1826-30, intended for the discussion of biblical prophecy, with evangelicals including the charismatic Edward Irving. Dodsworth combined their sense of living in an oppressive world about to be dramatically interrupted with Irving’s idea that the sacraments were not so much acts of memorial as events that allowed one to participate in the sole reality that would survive that conflagration: the mystical body of Christ. Like the risen body they celebrate, baptism, Eucharist and the festivals that derive from them belong to the world to come, the second life initiated by the resurrection, and when, with Newman’s encouragement, Dodsworth was given his own parish at Christ Church, he focused its collective life around them. Festivals and church seasons offered an alternative order of time to the linear direction of secular history, for the Tractarians increasingly saw the Church as a counter-society to the existing one.
Since the life to come would not include marrying or giving in marriage, the Church could again give sacred value to non-familial forms of kinship, and the way was clear for Dodsworth and Pusey to form the first Anglican sisterhood since the Reformation. Dodsworth also led his middle-class parishioners in an extensive programme of church building, education and sick relief in the poorer areas of his parish. Even the milder-mannered Pusey described this urban mission as ‘warfare’. Rossetti volunteered as a lay sister at a refuge for prostitutes, the Highgate Penitentiary, an experience that produced ‘Goblin Market’, with its sisterly resistance to sex bought and sold. Above all, an apocalyptic faith urged believers to watch for signs of the end times as a form of spiritual discipline, because really expecting the end enabled detachment from the seductive glories of worldly success. In The Face of the Deep, Rossetti’s line-by-line commentary on the Apocalypse, her reading of Revelation 18, in which the merchants cry ‘Alas’ to fallen Babylon, puts her in mind of fallen England:
Alas any whom the unknown day and hour find unprepared! From the folly of the foolish virgins, Good Lord, deliver us. And looking around us trembling we needs must say: Alas England full of luxuries and thronged by stinted poor, whose merchants are princes and whose dealings crooked, whose packed storehouses stand amid bare homes, whose gorgeous array has rags for neighbours!
Watching and waiting discounts success in this world, and Rossetti’s poetry would do little but watch.
Maintaining apocalyptic hope while belonging to the state church would prove an unbearable tension for Dodsworth; like Newman before him, he became a Roman Catholic. But Rossetti stayed in the Church of England, and in the latter part of her life found a new role as an Anglican devotional writer. The Face of the Deep reads Revelation against capital and empire, and makes a serious theological case for female leadership within the Church. Reflecting on Revelation 19:7, ‘the marriage of the Lamb is come, and His wife hath made herself ready,’ she reads the female characters of the Hebrew Scriptures from Eve to Esther as fore-instances of this heavenly bride, and concludes that the Church itself is typologically ‘all that is feminine’, implying there is no inconsistency in its present representatives being women either. This kinship, she adds, is ‘what I profess when I say: “I believe in the Communion of Saints.”’ Mann’s selection generally moves away from Rossetti’s comic or satirical verses to the ones within these less well-known devotional commentaries. Her poems on church festivals run in fairly well-worn grooves of biblical imagery because, as Mann puts it, they are written with a ‘concentration on community’ rather than individual struggle, but here, too, Rossetti can handle form beyond the capacity of any hymn-writer. ‘Set us free/From sin and from sorrow to fall down and worship/Thee,’ runs ‘Epiphanytide’, and the switch from a ten to a one-syllable line carries the shock of sudden attention to the single reality that matters. She can also be abruptly judgmental. ‘Pastime’ notices two people drifting along in a boat and suddenly flares into revulsion:
Better a wrecked life than a life so aimless,
Better a wrecked life than a life so soft;
The ominous west glooms thundering, with its fire
Their ‘pastime’ is about to become past time. Most often, though, the poems wrestle with the recognition that, in various ways, the end is already here, and that hopes and might-have-beens must die. The heartbreak of ‘Echo’ is not only that the lover or the baby are gone, but that the dying person is still defined by her lost love. ‘Come to me in dreams, that I may live/My very life again tho’ cold in death,’ she implores, but the interplay of one sound in another suggests that in saying it, she is now as much an echo of the memory as the other way round:
Come back to me in dreams, that I may give
Pulse for pulse, breath for breath,
Speak low, lean low,
As long ago, my love, how long ago.
Rossetti wanted everyone to face forward; she is a confessional poet only in the sense that she is first an apocalyptic poet, anticipating the time ‘when mysteries shall be revealed;/All secrets be unsealed’. But her spirit will not have had to wait until the Last Day for everything. The building of Christ Church, Albany Street is now leased to the Antiochian Orthodox Church, but the parish is still there, run from its mission church of St Mary Magdalene, Munster Square, whose current priest is the Reverend Mother Sally Jones.