"In the blank of mere possibility": liminal transformations in the poetry of Christina Rossetti

Shcherbino, K. 2016. "In the blank of mere possibility": liminal transformations in the poetry of Christina Rossetti. PhD thesis University of Westminster English, Linguistics and Cultural Studies

Title"In the blank of mere possibility": liminal transformations in the poetry of Christina Rossetti
TypePhD thesis
AuthorsShcherbino, K.

This thesis offers a new reading of Christina Rossetti’s poetic texts which situates them within the context of liminality. I define liminality here as a site of ambiguity, change and unfulfilment between two states, whilst emphasising its potential for transformation and transgression. I examine multiple narratives – personal and communal, linear and cyclical, spatial and temporal – which emerge from Rossetti’s complex texts, and highlight two major approaches used: layering and silencing. The range of works I analyse includes both famous and lesser known poems, secular and spiritual writing, from “Winter: My Secret” (1857) and “Goblin Market” (1859) to “The Iniquity of the Fathers Upon the Children” (1865) and ““Resurgam” (1883). With this wide range, I demonstrate that similar approaches are used throughout Rossetti’s writing from her earliest poems to her later work.

I begin the thesis with a focus on the fragmentation of the poetic self into observer and observed and examine the power acquired by the speakers/protagonists through the distance and seclusion of the liminal space. This enables the liminal space to shape a new identity for the speakers/protagonists. In Rossetti’s poetry, the liminal personae become defined by the space they inhabit, or are trapped in, on visual, physical, psychological and sound levels. This positioning helps them to acquire (or re-gain) personal history, memory and a voice.

I proceed to explore the conflict between the seen and the unseen, revelation and illusion, in Rossetti’s work, paralleling this with photographic experiments by Lady Hawarden. This enables me to trace the use of the threshold in both poetic and visual languages. Rossetti’s speakers are unable to cross this threshold yet they still struggle to gain control over the outside world.

From visual explorations I move on to consideration of sound and suggest that rhythm and rhyme function in the same way as Rossetti’s use of tropes of sight/deprivation of sight. Rossetti introduces rhythmical lapses and repetitive constructions as a means of controlling and shaping reality. Sound repetition subverts our expectations, while sound disruptions create negative spaces which serve as markers of the apocalyptic and the threshold. This idea of negative space is closely linked to the ideas of absence and unfulfilment and is pivotal in understanding Rossetti’s poetry. I argue that Rossetti’s theology is based on negation and that this is extended to her secular poems as well.

Christina Rossetti’s poems are characterised by oppositions of absence and exuberant presence on all textual levels. In the final part of my thesis, I examine the transformation of the speaker’s/narrator’s self. I read the ideas of unfulfilment against the self-recognition of the speakers and show their inner splits and subsequent alienation. In this way, unnaming and silencing work as ways of defining the boundaries of the self through negation.


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