Contemplating Christ in Creation in Christina Rossetti’s Seek and Find

Rossetti, Christina Georgina. Seek and Find; A Double Series of Short Studies of the Benedicite. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge; New York: Pott, Young, & Co. 1879. ABLibrary 19th Cent BV4832 .R73.

Rare Item Analysis: Contemplating Christ in Creation in Christina Rossetti’s Seek and Find

By Maggi Jones

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Through her poetry and devotional prose, Christina Rossetti offers a theology of creation that espouses a sense of care and kinship for all created things. For Rossetti, creation is not a separate, earthly reality of consisting of mere works; instead, creation participates in God’s glory on earth alongside humanity by reflecting God’s own beauty, indeed Christ himself. While others have noticed something similar at in other works by Rossetti—see, for instance, Marisa Mulloy’s “Christina Rossetti’s Concern for Creation in Time Flies: A Reading Diary”—this post looks closely at Seek and Find, her work of devotional prose reflecting on the Benedicite and one of the rare items housed in the Armstrong Browning Library’s 19th Century Collection.

Seek and Find title page image

 

Published in 1879 by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, the book is a well-preserved first edition containing no marginalia apart from an inscription by an Alan Ween in 1914. It has relatively little wear, with the exception of some minor water damage on the edges of the pages. Yet what is most fascinating about this work is its content. Seek and Find is an illuminating work in which Rossetti offers readers a unique glimpse of her ecotheological vision through her reading of the Benedicite, also known as the “Song of Creation” or the “Song of the Three Children” that is used in Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic versions of the Book of Daniel and the Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, but is also included as part of Morning Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer (Mason, 130). In what follows, we look to the structure and method of the book as first given by its opening biblical harmony, as well as its possible connection to the patristic exegetical tradition and the work of Gregory of Nyssa, in order to show how Rossetti intended to edify readers to seek and find Christ in creation through contemplation.

Rossetti begins the book with a three-columned table consisting of the Benedicite and accompanying biblical verses. This table is what Emma Mason rightly calls a biblical harmony, a hermeneutical tool that brings together seemingly conflicting passages from Scripture to showcase the consistency of the text; that is, how the passages “speak to and through each other” (Mason, 130; cf. Palazzo, 70-71). We might also consider the opening harmony to be a “table of contents” of sorts, in that it provides both structural and methodological clues for Seek and Find.

Image of interior page

As we see in the image above, Rossetti divides the harmony into three columns: the initial column bears the Benedicite, categorized under “The Praise-Givers Are…”; while the second and third column, respectively titled “God’s Creatures” and “Christ’s Servants,” offer complementary scriptural verses for each work of creation listed in the Benedicite. While the works of the Benedicite are grouped under “Praise-Givers,” the column titles form a sentence when read horizontally: “The Praise-Givers Are…God’s Creatures, Christ’s Servants.” In so doing, it seems that Rossetti is implicitly revising the way in which the Benedicite should be read—no longer are the works of creation merely works, for they too reflect Christ as humanity’s praise-giving kin. Read separately, it is also worth noting the punctuation of the categories: the comma following “God’s Creatures” conveys a continuation or incompleteness to the category (i.e., of creation), whereas period after “Christ’s Servants” indicates a finality or fruition. No matter how one reads the titles of the harmony, it clearly points to the structure of Seek and Find, as Rossetti divides the book into two sections, “Creation” and “Redemption.” However, in further examining the harmony, specifically the scriptural verses listed in each column, there is yet more to discover. Specifically, the verses listed under “God’s Creatures” are predominantly from the Old Testament, while those under “Christ’s Servants” are almost all of the New Testament and each includes a direct allusion to Christ. This indicates that, through this harmony and Seek and Find, Rossetti’s task is exegetical—what’s more, it is typological. In other words, here Rossetti offers a specific interpretation of Scripture and of creation, through and in which she envisions Christ. Such an interpretation is reminiscent of that of the early church fathers whose works and exegetical tradition were central to the Tractarian movement, particularly that of Gregory of Nyssa.

While it is likely that Rossetti read works of some early church fathers, whether Rossetti ever encountered Nyssa is unknown. However, Nyssa was especially influential on the thought of Tractarians, including chief promoter Edward Pusey, whose sermons, when heard by Rossetti in her church, had a profound effect on her (Mason, 57; Ludlow 60). It is also the case that Rossetti had access to relevant intellectual resources, including while at Longleat House in Somerset in which she stayed for a time when her aunt Charlotte was a governess, at the public library in Frome where she taught in the early 1850s, and at the Bibliotheca Lindesiana, the vast library of Haigh Hall where she worked as a governess in the mid-1850s (Mason, 82). Further, there are echoes of Nyssa in the Rossetti’s works noticed by scholars such as Mason and Ludlow.¹ As such, it could be the case that Rossetti did encounter Nyssa’s work at some point, whether through her own studies or by way of her Tractarian influences.

As it relates to Seek and Find, one of Nyssa’s works seems especially relevant—his Life of Moses. In Life of Moses, Nyssa presents a theological interpretation and exegesis of Moses’s life as given in Exodus and Numbers. Like Rossetti with her exegesis on the Benedicite, he divides his interpretation of Moses’s life into two parts: historia, in which he gives a paraphrasing of the biblical text, or what could also be considered a literal interpretation of Moses’s life; and theoria, a contemplation on the spiritual meaning of the text, or an analogical interpretation of the life of Moses. As Nyssa understood it, the movement from literal to analogical is part of one’s own spiritual journey or askesis. That is, as one contemplates and discovers the spiritual meaning of the text, she is brought further into a life of virtue and, thus, closer to God.

Rossetti appears to do something similar with Seek and Find. In “Creation,” she offers a biblically based and literal interpretation of the Benedicite and of nature, including humanity’s participation with and in nature. She compliments this reading with a typological interpretation in “Redemption,” bringing readers closer to Christ through contemplation. To this, she explains that to move “from Creation to Redemption is to penetrate as it were out of the Holy Place into the Holy of Holies. Contemplation takes precedence of discussion, thanksgiving of inquiry…” (SF, 169). To see this movement in the context of Seek and Find, consider how Rossetti moves readers through the literal to the typological by looking to a specific part of the praise-giving creation of the Benedicite, “all ye Green Things upon the Earth,” as given in “Creation” and “Redemption.”

Rossetti begins her initial interpretation of green things in “Creation” by encouraging readers to imagine the world without the beauty of vegetation, writing:

Fancy what this world would be were it prevalently clay-coloured or slate-coloured! Fancy what it would become if it went on supplying all that is necessary, but not our necessaries in their actual familiar garb of beauty! Suppose we no longer had cornfields and orchards, but a magazine of ‘constituents,’ gluten, starch, saccharine matter, what not: no longer leafy branches for shade and leafless branches for fuel, but fogs and clouds for the one, and combustible gases for the other! While as the case stands our study of ‘all green things’ may fitly become a study of beauty and pleasure, an exercise of thankfulness. (SF, 96-97)

For Rossetti, green things are a witness to God’s glory in creation, evoking delight and gratitude. Yet, in her reading of humanity’s participation with nature, we find an implicit critique: humanity has lost this sense of beauty, seeing green things not for their inherent beauty, only use. Furthermore, she seems to speak directly to a Victorian audience in London through her contrasting imagery of fog and clouds, and of combustible gases. Rossetti follows this call for the thanksgiving of green things with an abundance of biblical support that speaks to nature’s beauty and its place in creation, not as work but as gift. For instance, she recalls that in Genesis grass is the first of the vegetables to be created (Gen. 1:11) and how it is seen as a gift in Zechariah 10:1. She also references the many instances of trees and fruits in the Bible, but admits that to exhaustively recount every instance would require a volume of its own (SF, 101). She ultimately ends the reflection with a prayer, taken from Jeremiah, in which she names as blessed those who trust and hope in the Lord, for they will be like trees rooted near a river, forever green and yielding fruit (SF, 103). Green things are, therefore, blessings bearing God’s beauty on earth, and well would it be for humanity to see it as such.

In her final reading of green things in “Redemption,” Rossetti again reminds readers of the beauty of nature. To Rossetti, God is pleased to show how goodness resides in any and all creatures through various illustrations of beauty, for each is an outcome and resemblance of God. It is here, too, where Rossetti also provides her typological rendering of the beauty of green things, writing:

Under a form of most sweet beauty the multitudinous unity of a plant sets forth Christ and His members. ‘I am the true Vine, and my Father is the Husbandman …. I am the Vine, ye are the branches’ (St. John xv. 1-8). Everything is held in common and (dare we say so?) for mutual solace and loveliness. Not, indeed, that we bear the Root, but the Root us (see Rom. xi. 18): yet it so bears us that it feeds its branches with its very life, and lives in them as truly as they live by it. Nor does it limit its gift to that of a bare existence; it clothes itself with them as with an added honour; it makes their leaves comely by colour, and their tendrils a very grace by delicacy; it invests them with the fruit which cheereth God and man (see Judges xi. 12, 13). (SF, 261-262)

It is true that green things bear the beauty of God, thus resembling God, but through contemplation we see a deeper reflection of God in nature—that of Christ. While Rossetti continues to link green things to Christ through references to Scripture, even unto his death when “myrrh and aloes embalmed His sacred body” (SF, 266), she ends the contemplation by encouraging readers to bring forth the fruit of the Spirit by letting their hearts “be as His own inclosed garden” (SF, 266). For as the above quote indicates, humanity, or rather the church, shares and participates in the beauty of creation imbued by Christ; Christ the Root bears humanity, and through the Spirit we may also bear fruit to delight God and our kin.

By moving from “Creation” to “Redemption,” Rossetti brings readers through an interpretation of the Benedicite that first acknowledges the present reality of humanity’s participation and kinship with creation, and ultimately leads readers to the contemplation of Christ in all of creation. Inevitably, there is more to be said about Rossetti’s Seek and Find. Scholars can further analyze and clarify Rossetti’s ecotheological vision in Seek and Find, and how it relates and contributes to a larger theology of creation that Rossetti weaves throughout her devotional works and poetry, including her poem “All Thy Works Praise Thee, O Lord: A Processional Of Creation”—also based on the Benedicite. Moreover, more can be done in developing a connection between Seek and Find and the works of Gregory of Nyssa and the early church fathers. For instance, it may be fruitful to also consider Nyssa’s homilies on the Song of Songs and the ways in which his vision of creation aligns with Rossetti’s. Yet it is clear that Rossetti’s goal in Seek and Find, much like Nyssa’s goal in Life of Moses, is to edify readers in the art of contemplation, bringing them ever closer to God through a love and admiration for God’s glory in creation, in which we can see Christ. For as she makes clear in the last pages of Seek and Find, “Whatsoever we contemplate, this is the true end of all contemplation: to ‘see Jesus’” (SF, 325).

Works Cited

Ludlow, Elizabeth. Christina Rossetti and the Bible: Waiting with the Saints. New York, Bloomsbury, 2014.

Mason, Emma. Christina Rossetti: Poetry, Ecology, Faith. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2018.

Palazzo, Lynda. Christina Rossetti’s Feminist Theology. New York, Palgrave, 2002.

¹ See especially Mason’s second chapter, “Kinship and Creation,” Poetry, Ecology, Faith, 70-101.

Posted in ABL Rare Item Analyses by Students, Armstrong Browning Library

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