If asked to name a poem by Christina Rossetti, many of us would manage ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’; a favourite carol. If pressed, we might also manage ‘Goblin Market’. In fact, Christina Rossetti wrote volumes of poetry, both religious and secular. This Advent we have the opportunity to engage with a selection of her work through this ‘poem a day’ by Rachel Mann.
The author tells us in her illuminating introduction that Rossetti was long thought of as sentimental. However if we work our way through this Advent book poem by poem with Mann’s insightful commentary we will find that Rossetti is worthy of the study, and see why she has been reassessed in recent years, largely though the work of Christian-feminist scholars.
Rachel Mann, herself a poet and a priest in the Diocese of Manchester, will be known to many from her previous works. Anyone who has read ‘Fierce Imaginings’, her take on the Great War, will know how well she writes and how original her thinking. She makes an excellent guide to the relevance of Rossetti’s poems for a modern audience during Advent and Christmas.
Mann uses Rossetti’s poems to reclaim God’s time. Christ with us now, yet whose birth we await. Advent as a time of ‘preparation, reflection and discipline’, yet today pushed out by Christmas until ‘Advent means treating oneself to ‘foretastes’ of the feast’. These issues and tensions are drawn out of the poems.
Rossetti’s poetry, as shown in this book, comes in different verse forms, uses rhyme, rhythm and often repetition, and the language shows the poet was steeped in the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible. The poems are not a cosy read; many deal with the Advent theme of the Four Last Things (death, judgement, heaven and hell). However with Mann’s guidance and insight, the reader will be well rewarded for reading them, especially for reading them slowly in the manner of Lectio Divina as the book recommends.
Mann tells us that poetry is ‘potent, flavoursome and life-altering stuff’. That could be just what we need this Advent.
Reviewed by Jenny Monds, Ambassador for RNIB ‘Talking Books’
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