Rossetti, Christina. Time Flies: A Reading Diary. London: Society for Promoting Christian          Knowledge, 1890. (ABLibrary 19thCent BV4832 .R74 1890)

Rare Item Analysis: Condemning Cruelty Condemning Cruelty Against Creatures: Christina Rossetti’s Anti-Vivisection Perspective in Time Flies: A Reading Diary

By Bryanne Mahon

In a letter to a friend, Christina Rossetti says of Time Flies, “it is something of a favorite with me amongst my own books” (1887). This autobiographical, diary-formatted collection of daily reflections and revelations includes quotations from scripture, discussions on the lives of saints, poems, and personal anecdotes. All entries display Rossetti’s contemplations of life and the natural world in relation to her Tractarian theology and high view of creation (Williams, 3). This book was originally owned by V. C. Turnbull, a poet and active literary critc, as noted on the first page, and it is located in the Armstrong Browning Library’s 19th Century Women Poets Collection.

Rossetti’s respectful relationship with all natural things and creatures of the world is an obvious thread throughout this devotional book and many of her works. A previous analysis of Time Flies: A Reading Diary, written by Marisa Mulloy, examines Rossetti’s concern for creation by comparing the early version of the poem, “To what purpose is this waste?” (July 5th) in relation to Rossetti’s anecdotal stories of being frightened by a frog and leaving a strawberry for a snail (July 17-18). This post can be found here. I affirm and narrow in on this conversation of Rossetti’s care for creation by taking a closer look within Time Flies: A Reading Diary. Her July 19th entry, titled “A Word for the Dumb,” reveals Rossetti’s condemnation of cruelty to all creatures, especially emphasizing her disapproval of vivisection, the practice of experimenting and performing research surgery on live animals. I explore the purpose and significance of this poem, as well as compare this poem’s 1879 letter version to her revised version of the same poem in Time Flies. This poem, found in both letter format and in this diary, highlights Christina Rossetti’s anti-vivisection ideology as she considers all creation in connection to God’s grace and covenant. A comparison between two versions of this poem reveals a title change, punctuation revisions, and a change in word choice that strongly emphasizes Rossetti’s growing concern for humanity to perceive the non-human as creatures worthy of love who also have rights before God.

Christina Rossetti’s personal life and upbringing greatly impacted her position against vivisection, which is the focus of her poem, “A Word for the Dumb.” Rossetti’s religion and connection to Francis of Assisi shaped her view of God’s presence indwelling in all living and nonhuman things. As a member of the Anglo-Catholic movement within the Church of England, whose renewed emphasis on sacramental ritual encouraged her to view all creation as participating in God’s grace, revealing Him, and sharing in His worship. She was well acquainted with the work and life of St. Francis of Assisi and shared his view of recognizing creatures as brothers and sisters in Christ. In Time Flies and several other works, Rossetti elevates creation as individual beings that are participants of grace apart from man’s influence.

Christina Rossetti used her brilliant writing to convey and spark activism to uphold her belief of creation as part of God’s community, especially championing for anti-vivisection causes. The controversial vivisection movement began in the 1820s and intensified in the nineteenth century (Li, 28). Christina Rossetti abhorred vivisection because it shattered God’s covenant made “between me and you and every living creature that is with you” (Genesis 9:12; Mason, 122). Additionally, she understood the sign of the rainbow as a covenant of protection between God and all creation, not just humans (D’Amico & Kent, 75). These beliefs spilled into letters exchanged with her brother and friends indicating her strong “horror” against vivisection. To enact change and share her view of creation as heavenly community, she procured signatures for an anti-Vivisection Petition to Parliament and offered the editor of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge £20 to destroy copies of a pro-vivisection book by Percy Franklin (Mason, 124). Furthermore, she offered several autographed copies of the following poem, “A Word for the Dumb” to an anti-vivisection auction to raise funds for the movement (Mason, 124). An analysis of this poem reveals Rossetti’s understanding of the advanced animal world in relation to God’s grace.

Christina Rossetti’s poem, “A Word for the Dumb” undergoes many significant changes between the year it was sold for the anti-vivisection cause, found in a letter written to her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and later revised for publication in Time Flies. This letter written from Christina to Dante Gabriel in January 1879 reports on her success of selling autographed copies of the poem and reveals differences in the poem’s style when compared to Rossetti’s version of the same poem in Time Flies: A Reading Diary. See a picture of the letter below.

Knowing the context of this poem in relation to its anti-vivisection cause changes the seemingly simple reflection on animal life as it is presented in Time Flies: A Reading Diary. Because this letter is dated January 1879, and Time Flies was published in 1885 (although Turnbull’s copy was published in 1890), one can assume that the poem’s version in the letter was one of her first drafts, and she turned to reflect and update this poem as she composed her devotional book, Time Flies. With this in mind, comparisons in style between the two versions become significant. Compare the following editions of this poem.

First, the variance in the poem’s title is obvious and peculiar. Her earlier letter suggests that she struggled to find an appropriate title for this poem at the time. Although she proposed “A Poor Old Dog” to name the poem, the strikethrough indicates it was not a fitting title for Rossetti. The version in Time Flies provides evidence that Rossetti settled on the title “A Word for the Dumb.” Relatedly, Emma Mason’s book tracing Rossetti’s poetry, ecology, and faith mentions that she was introduced to Thomas Jackson’s pro-animal rights lectures titled, “Our Dumb Companions” (1864) and “Our Dumb Neighbors” (1870) (123). It is likely Rossetti derived the title for this work from Jackson’s lectures and books.

In relation to Rossetti’s poem in Time Flies titled, “A Word for the Dumb” Thomas Jackson’s book, Our Dumb Neighbors is subtitled “Conversations of a father with his children on domestic and other animals.” It is a well-illustrated book in which a father converses with his children to explain the beauty of animals. The animals are referred to as dumb, but not in the modern sense of stupidity. Rather, “dumb” refers to the fact that animals could not speak. This portrayal of the word “dumb” that alludes to the animals’ lack of speech is further illustrated in the 1868 American animal advocacy magazine, “Our Dumb Animals” whose motto and subtitle is, “We Speak For Those Who Cannot Speak For Themselves” (Angell, 1868). These uses of “dumb” contrast with the earlier and influential view of Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologiae, a foundational work of Christian thought that dismisses the mental capabilities of animals, considering them human property. Aquinas writes, “Dumb animals and plants are devoid of the life of reason whereby to set themselves in motion; they are moved, as it were by another, by a kind of natural impulse, a sign of which is that they are naturally enslaved and accommodated to the uses of others” (Aquinas, Question 64). Whereas earlier references to “dumb” allude to the animal’s lack of speech, Aquinas connects this work to a lack of reason and agency.

Thus, Rossetti’s poem, “A Word for the Dumb” is a response to Aquinas’s and other troubled Christians’ egocentric beliefs about the animal world. Additionally, this poem’s title is not disparaging animals’ capacity to think; she pens this poem as a message from the animals because they lack speech. Like Jackson’s book and the American magazine, this poem is written to defend God’s creatures, because “who shall plead for thee?” as the animals lack a voice (Rossetti, line 8). The comparison of the versions of the poems between Rossetti’s 1879 letter to William and her Time Flies version indicates that the title, “A Word for the Dumb” was likely added later as the national movement of giving a voice to “dumb” animals began to rise. This poem is her “word for the dumb”, which incites pity and empathy for animals that deserve humanity’s care and respect. Using this common reference word in conjunction with the anti-animal cruelty movement was a way to clearly identify herself with this important cause.

In addition to the change in title, slight variations in word choice and punctuation are worth noting in comparing Rossetti’s poem in her 1879 letter to her later version in Time Flies. First, one may notice that Rossetti loses all capitalization of the animals in her later version of the poem. “Dog”, “Frog”, “Puss”, and “Bunny” now lose their proper noun status so that the animal term can now refer to the entire species of dogs rather than a single Dog. Rossetti’s slight change in capitalization allows the poem to refer to a wider range of animals, ensuring all of God’s creation is heard in this poem. Second, Rossetti’s style of punctuation changes as her later edition of the poem uses many more commas. The first poem contains two commas, whereas the later edition of the poem contains seven commas. It is likely that with more thought on this poem, Rossetti wanted her readers to dwell a bit more on the goodness of the animals and their reliance on us. Instead of quickly reading a line, the reader must now dwell seconds longer on thoughts that value the everyday animal. The insertion of commas forces the reader to take a pause and consider that dogs, frogs, cats, and bunnies are God’s creatures that must be spared from the cruelty and sin of vivisection. Notably, the Illustrated Police News, the only national newspaper to openly oppose vivisection at the time, specifically used images of these small animals to display the violence of these operations (Logan, 13). The four animals that Rossetti references were the most abused of all creatures during this time.

Furthermore, Rossetti’s most significant change in these poems emerges in the seventh line. In her 1879 letter, the line reads, “Spare all the harmless creatures on the earth:” whereas her Time Flies version says, “Spare all the harmless tenants of the earth;” (Rossetti, emphasis mine). This revision creates a stronger connection between the pitiful, valuable animals and their human reader. The word “tenants” suggests animals own a space of Earth just as humans have the right to land. In contrast, Rossetti’s earlier choice of “creatures” may suggest a divide between animals and humans. Rossetti sought a word that would parallel the lives of humans and the space they inhabit to pull at the tenderness of humanity to reconsider their cruelty through vivisection. Not only does this stylistic choice promote a turn away from vivisection, but it also underlies Rossetti’s reoccurring and refreshing belief that humans must respect all creatures because God has fashioned them for His purpose, too.
To students, scholars, and teachers, Rossetti’s Time Flies is a great addition to any classroom to bring her character to life. The stylistic changes between her early and later version of the poem, “A Word for the Dumb” can be used in an English class to bring Rossetti’s character to life while showing the importance of attention to stylistic detail. For all, this is a great poem to examine for its lasting impression in the anti-vivisection movement in the way it gathered profits for this movement and brought awareness to the cruelty toward animals. In a unit that explores how writing can impact change, this is a crucial poem to bring to students’ attention. Rossetti’s loving character and intention are portrayed well in this poem and would be insightful for students and scholars alike. 

The changes in Rossetti’s anti-vivisection poem’s title, punctuation, and word choice demonstrate her persistent dedication to this movement and reveal deep personal convictions about the relationship between human and animal in God’s eyes. For Rossetti, all life, both human and non-human, display’s God’s grace and mercy. Creation worships the Creator by merely existing, and her writing continually suggests that humans can do well to emulate this non-human level of worship and devotion. Rossetti’s poem, “A Word for the Dumb” is later revised from her earlier 1879 letter to a more thoughtful and deliberate anti-vivisection stance that introduces a viewpoint that considers animals as God’s creatures alongside humanity, equally created to serve and worship.

Works Cited

Aquinas, St Thomas. Summa Theologiae, ET by the English Dominican Fathers (New York:        Benzinger Brothers, 1918), Part II, Question 64, Article 1.

D’Amico, Diane & Kent, David. “Christina Rossetti’s Notes on Genesis and Exodus.” The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, vol. 13. Spring 2004. pp. 49-99.

Jackson, Thomas, and Ansdell. Our Dumb Companions, or, Conversations of a Father with His   Children: About Dogs, Horses, Donkeys, and Cats: by Thomas Jackson. Illustrated by        Harrison Weir, Thomas Landseer, and L. Huard, S. W. Partridge, [1864]. Nineteenth        Century Collections Online.

Karaim, Reed. “Protecting Animals.” CQ Researcher. 13 July 2018. pp. 585-608.

King, Joshua. “Christina Rossetti: Poetry, Ecology, Faith.” Victorian Studies, vol. 61, no. 3,         Spring 2019, pp. 514+. Gale Academic One File

Li, Chien-hui. “Mobilizing Literature in the Animal Defense Movement in Britain, 1870-1918.” Literary and Cultural Studies, vol. 32, no. 1, January 2006, pp. 27-55.

Logan, Louise. “Sensation and Empathy in Illustrations of Vivisection in the Illustrated Police News.” Victorian Periodicals Review, vol. 53, number 1, Spring 2020, pp. 13-33.

Mason, Emma. “Pretty Beasts and Flowers: A Companionable Faith, 1863–1884.” Christina        Rossetti: Poetry, Ecology, Faith.: Oxford University Press, 21. Oxford Scholarship      Online.

Rossetti, Christina. The Letters of Christina Rossetti. Vol. 4, Anthony H. Harrison (ed.)    (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1997)

Williams, Todd O. “The Autobiographical Self And Embodied Knowledge Of God In Christina          Rossetti’s ‘Time Flies.’” Literature and Theology, vol. 28, no.       3, Oxford University Press,      2014, pp. 321–33,