Rossetti, Christina. Time Flies: A Reading Diary. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1890. ABLibrary 19thCent BV4832.R74 1890
Rare Item Analysis: Christina Rossetti’s Concern for Creation in Time Flies: A Reading Diary
By: Marisa Mulloy
Christina Rossetti was one of the most respected and influential female poets of the Victorian age. Her strong faith made her voice relevant and trustworthy to the questions and challenges the church was facing in Rossetti’s time as a poet. The rare item discussed in this post is Time Flies: A Reading Diary, in which Rossetti offers devotional meditations for each day of the year. It was owned by V.C. Turnbull and is a part of the Armstrong Browning Library’s 19th Century Collection. The poems from Time Flies I’ll be discussing in this post are the entries from June 5th, June 6th and June 17th-8th. The July 5th entry is an edited version of an excerpt from her early poem, “To what purpose is this waste?”; we will discuss these changes and their significance later in this post. The July 6th entry tells a story of Rossetti frightening a frog and the frog in turn frightening her. In this poem, she reminds the readers of what biblical tradition says about the divine judgement that follows the mistreatment of animals. The July 17-18th entries tell a story of a wild strawberry Rossetti wanted to eat, but was told to be patient. When the time finally came for her to have the strawberry, a snail left it half-eaten. In her anger toward the snail, she realizes the tendency humans have to think ourselves more deserving than other creatures of the earth. Rossetti discusses ideas of ecology and faith throughout many of her works, but the placement of these entries within Time Fliescreate a very specific experience for the reader. This post will be looking at the significance of Rossetti’s changes to the poem mentioned above (July 5th entry) and how the following entries develop the seriousness of Rossetti’s care for creation.
When Rossetti was 22, she wrote, but did not publish, a poem entitled “To what purpose is this waste?” This poem tells the narrative of a woman who falls into a dream and realizes humanity’s misguided practice of assuming creation exists only for humanity’s sake. She reminds the readers that everything is valuable independent of human acknowledgement of value. We see analogous ideas when she has the reader visualize all things living and ‘inanimate’—the animals, the wind blowing through trees, the waves of the ocean—’join with the song of Angels’ (49-50). The sounds of nature join with the praises of Angels in Heaven; giving the earth and things of the earth a significant existence and position in the eyes of God. When Rossetti publishes Time Flies, she uses one of the stanzas from “To what purpose is this waste?” but with significant revisions, as you’ll see below:
“To what purpose is this waste?”
And others eyes than our’s
Were made to look on flowers,
Eyes of small birds and insects small
The deep sun blushing rose
Round which the prickles close
Opens her bosom to them all.
The tiniest living thing
That soars on feather wing,
Or crawls among the long grass out of sight,
Has just as good a right
To its appointed portion of delight
As any King.
Time Flies: June 5th entry
Innocent eyes not ours,
are made to look on flowers
Eyes of small birds and insects small
Morn after summer morn,
The sweet rose on her thorn
Opens her bosom to them all.
The least and last of things
That soar on quivering wings,
Or craw among the grass-blades out of sight
Have just as clear a right
To their appointed portion of delight,
As Queens or Kings.
In the first line, we understand Rossetti’s redirection of the reader’s understanding of these “eyes”. They are “innocent” eyes, immediately evoking a sense of helplessness. The next revisions “Morn after summer morn, / The sweet rose on her thorn” adds a consistency to the joy that these “eyes” have a right to experience—they don’t just enjoy it once, but morning after morning. This line also insinuates a kind of human desire to enjoy beauty that we may not often attribute to small birds and insects. With imagery of a rose, Rossetti makes asserts that nature’s beauty is not just for humans to enjoy; a point she labors throughout the whole of “To what purpose is this waste?” The revision that changes “feathered wing” to “quivering wing” gives the reader a sense that these creatures are now a victim of some sort, as they are now both “innocent” and “quivering”. The change from “just as good a right” to “just as cleara right” also changes the way the reader may interpret “the right” that Rossetti is arguing they possess. When these creatures have a “clear” right – there is a definitiveness that exceeds a “good” right. Rossetti is saying that the small birds and insects and other creatures have an objective, definite and sure inheritance to delight. The tone of this line communicates a seriousness to the reader. Lastly, Rossetti adds “Queens” to the simile that is making her case for animals deserving delight. I interpret this as an insinuation that creation is also the Bride of Christ (The King she refers to)—meaning that God views animals and his creation as just as important as humans. These revisions overall add a seriousness to what Rossetti is calling her readers to think about – that this is not just a call to animal rights but a serious exhortation to reconsider the lens of domination humanity tends to view creation through.
Animals to Rise in the Judgement
The entries following this poem continue to confront readers with the severity of this issue. In the July 6 entry, Rossetti tells the story of a frog that frightens her. She catches herself in her anger then realizes: “Is it quite certain that no day will ever come when even the smallest, weakest, most grotesque, wronged creature will not in some fashion rise up in the Judgement with us to condemn us, and so frighten us effectually once for all?” (pg. 128-129). While this may initially seem to be an unfamiliar idea, Rossetti is thoughtfully reminding us of Christian and Jewish tradition that ends in judgment for those that mistreat animals. She alludes to Job 31:38-40: “If my land has cried out against me and its furrows have wept together, if I have eaten its yield without payment and made its owners breathe their last, let thorns grow instead of wheat, and fowl weeds instead of barley.” Job is crying out in brokenness that if he has mistreated his land by “eating without payment” or even forced those who also use it to breathe their last breath—he deserves judgement. Rossetti reminds the readers of these biblical precedents in the July 6th entry. The severity of this entry would undoubtedly change the way the reader interprets the “rights” described in “Innocent eyes.”
Creation’s Equality in Rights
In the July 17 and 18 entries, Rossetti tells the story of waiting for a strawberry she wants to ripen, only to find it “half eaten and good for nothing” by a snail (pg. 137). She exhorts herself in the July 18th passage: “…why should not they [snails and similar creatures] have a share in strawberries? Man is very apt to contemplate himself out of all proportion to his surroundings: true he is ‘much better than they,’ yet have they also their assigned providence and guaranteed dues.” (pg. 137) This entry will remind the reader of a point Rossetti has already made in the July 5th entry – the creature has “just as clear a right” to any earthly “portion of delight”. Rossetti alludes to Genesis, in which God tells man that they are to “subdue” the earth and “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). While Rossetti is acknowledging this, she is not justifying humanity’s mistreatment of creation, as creation also has “their assigned providence and guaranteed dues.” We know that Rossetti was very involved in protesting vivisection, or experimental surgery on living animals, and this entry would directly address this issue to the readers of the time. Rossetti specifically mentions in this entry that “science pares away at the living creature bodily,” and then ends with a reference from Jeremiah (Jer. 5:31) warning the nation of Israel of their impending judgement: “what will ye do in the end thereof” (pg. 138) or “what will you do when the end comes?” Rossetti is warning the scientists of her time that might justify the harm of a living creature for their own gain.
A reader working through Time Flies will quickly see that Rossetti took correct treatment of creation very seriously. To Rossetti, this is not just a trend or a movement, but a genuine conviction of how humans should respect and care for creation. As the reader continues through the July entries, they begin to see the extent to which Rossetti believes this to be a social and spiritual issue, and potentially even evokes a sense of change in the reader to think more deeply about the thoughts and practices that are accepted concerning creation.
While not pursued in this post, Rossetti’s Tractarian ideas are evident throughout her work. It would be beneficial to analyze significant ways in which these ideas of communion and loyalty to nature present themselves in Rossetti’s work. Time Fliescan not only be used to understand Rossetti’s emphasis on ecology and faith, but can be studied to understand Tractarian ideas as they present themselves in poetry.