The Face of the Deep

If thou canst dive, bring up pearls. If thou canst not dive, collect amber. Though I fail to identify Paradisiacal “bdellium,” I still may hope to search out beauties of the “onyx stone.”

A dear saint—I speak under correction of the Judgment of the Great Day, yet think not then to have my word corrected—this dear person once pointed out to me Patience as our lesson in the Book of Revelations.

Following the clue thus afforded me, I seek and hope to find Patience in this Book of awful import. Patience, at the least: and along with that grace whatever treasures beside God may vouchsafe me. Bearing meanwhile in mind how “to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.”

Now if any deign to seek Patience in my company, I pray them to remember that One high above me in the Kingdom of Heaven heads our pilgrim caravan.

O, ye who love to-day,
Turn away
From Patience with her silver ray :
For Patience shows a twilight face,
Like a half-lighted moon
When daylight dies apace.

But ye who love to-morrow,
Beg or borrow
To-day some bitterness of sorrow :
For Patience shows a lustrous face
In depth of night her noon ;
Then to her the sun gives place

Thus writes Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894) in the “Prefatory Note” to her verse-by-verse commentary, the first ever such from the pen of a woman (so I’ve read, though I’m not entirely sure this is so), on the Book of Revelation, titled The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on The Apocalypse (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1892). Christina was the sister (and often the model for) her perhaps more well-known brother, the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, also no mean shakes at the pen. Something that is often neglected in appreciation of the Pre-Raphaelites is their deep Christian faith, which found expression in their artworks. Christina was the most devout of the bunch. Throughout her life, she suffered from various illnesses, including Grave’s Disease, and eventually succumbed to cancer. Yet from the midst of such lifelong suffering came some of the finest poetry in the English language. Would we have had the same poetry had she been healthy all her life? I doubt it. For those faithful Christians who have suffered and who do suffer from life-threatening illnesses can tell you of the astonishing efficacy of such a furnace as deathly illness in refining one’s perceptions and intentions, in burning away the dross of concern for unimportant matters and in stoking a faith to burn fully aflame that in health was only an expiring ember in ash.

I intend to present here the entirety of Christina Rossetti’s The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on The Apocalypse, section by section, perhaps one per week. Most are on a single verse, so this will be a long-term serial presentation. I’ll present the first section, covering Apoc 1.1-2 sometime later this week.

I very much enjoy Christina’s poetry, as readers might have realized from my earlier presentation of one of her poems. Reading her, I hear my own voice as often as not, which is peculiar and comforting at the same time, and which is something that really only the very best of poetry can do to us. It’s hard to describe! Anyhow, she created quite a number of short poems as part of this commentary, where it works with her prose to illuminate the text of the Apocalypse. Her prose and poetry are organically intertwined here, just as you see in the preface above: who would understand the crucial referent of “Patience” in the poem once it were ripped from its moorings there in the Prefatory Note? Christina was also quite well aware of the importance of the imagery of “the face of the deep” particularly in reference to the Apocalypse and the text’s “surface” and “depth.” See particularly Kevin Mills, “Pearl-Divers of the Apocalypse—Christina Rossetti’s The Face of the Deep.” Literature and Theology 2001 15.1:25-39. This is the article which led me to hunt down my copy of The Face of the Deep, which happily for me turned out to be a first edition, though a somewhat battered copy. The Face of the Deep has only recently been reprinted as volume four of Prose Works of Christina Rossetti (Bristol, UK: Thoemmes Continuum, 2003).

Christina Georgina Rossetti has accomplished with this work, The Face of the Deep, something that I would like to see more of from the hands of truly great artists: a work of great Christian faith, of impeccable artistic quality, with a focus on the devotional rather than the academic or worldly. Sadly, these days, it seems none of these three are often accomplished in tandem.

If thou canst dive, bring up pearls. If thou canst not dive, collect amber.

Wow.

4 Replies to “The Face of the Deep”

  1. How good and interesting to find out that you have a copy of The face of the deep. You say you are going to share it – is it possible I can read what you are putting on the internet? I ask this as I love Christina and her devotional (and other) poems, and am very interested to know what she wrote in The face of the deep. Thank you. Neil

  2. Hi Neil,
    Check under the “Poetry” category in the right column here, and there are two or three more postings I did from Face of the Deep. I’ll be posting more, eventually. I’ve just pretty much forgotten!

    Christina Rossetti is not only a great devotional writer, she’s recognized as one of the greats in English poetry. Her command of the language is superb, and the way she plays with the meter is subtle, intelligent, and at times daring. I think she doesn’t get enough attention (except from other great poets!) in literature education primarily because of the strongly Christian subject matter of the majority of her work. It’s really a case of inexcusable bigotry.

    It’s good to hear from another Christina Rossetti fan!

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