Time Flies: A Reading Diary
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KeywordsRossetti, Christina Devotional prose Poetry Theology Religion Tractarianism Anglo-Catholicism
In Time Flies: A Reading Diary (1885) Christina Rossetti (1830–1894) charts the devotional experience of the Christian over the course of a year, recreating in microcosm the rhythms of the soul’s lifelong sanctification. Rossetti structures her reading diary according to the civil calendar year, emphasizing the “daily-ness” and immanence of lived Christian experience. Within the framework of the civil year, Rossetti also guides her readers through the ecclesiastical year, synchronizing sacred and secular time and imitating the paradox of Christian living emphasized by Tractarian typological hermeneutics: the kingdom of God is already here but has not yet come. In Time Flies, faith is lived out within the temporal but exists as a habit of and type of the eternal, imbuing it with the power to determine the material.
Christina Rossetti’s (1830–1894) Time Flies: A Reading Diary was published in 1885, succeeding four previous devotional works and further strengthening Rossetti’s influence as a moral and biblical theologian (Rossetti’s previous devotional works included Annus Domini: A Prayer for Each Day of the Year, Founded on a Text of Holy Scripture , Seek and Find: A Double Series of Short Studies of the Benedicite , Called to Be Saints: The Minor Festivals Devotionally Studied , and Letter and Spirit: Notes on the Commandments ). Like Rossetti’s first foray into devotional literature with Annus Domini, Time Flies was crafted as a daily companion for readers. Although not as well received when published as much of her previous and subsequent work, Time Flies is a structurally innovative theological work in which Rossetti both preached and practiced a Tractarian typological hermeneutic (Roe 2006). It is also a notable example of Rossetti’s skill in collecting poetry, personal anecdote, hagiography, social commentary, and a range of other rhetorical tools in the service of biblical interpretation. Rossetti’s structural and rhetorical choices enact the devotional experience of the Christian who must find a way to live doxologically and pragmatically between the kingdom of God already come in the Incarnation and the kingdom of Heaven yet to be in the Apocalypse.
Rossetti’s structure points to her greatest theological contribution in Time Flies: by harmonizing the civil and sacred calendars, Rossetti both emphasizes and practices a Tractarian hermeneutic in which present realities contain the future and eternal. Rossetti organized the book according to three temporal paradigms: first and chiefly as a series of readings for each day of the civil year, starting with January 1 and ending with December 31; second as a series of meditations upon concurrent liturgical feasts and occasions, including a separate series on the moveable feasts; and third as a material, daily reminder that sacred time must interpret secular time. As a result, the days of the civil calendar are both harmonized with those of the church year and unsettled by them. Rossetti intertwines the sacred and the secular, recognizing that human beings live out their daily lives by marking time according to civil and civic responsibilities and that, as a result, sacred time is experienced in the here and now as immanent and daily. On the other hand, Rossetti unsettles the days of the civil calendar by insisting that eternity interpret temporality, the sacred interpret the secular, and the church interpret the civil. Thus, civil time is, in Rossetti’s eschatology, subject to the sacred – a frame through which the eternal shines (Lysack 2013).
Rossetti connects her Tractarian hermeneutic and her rhetorical choices, aligning the question of orthodoxy with the question of orthopraxy and using a variety of rhetorical techniques to teach and enact proper Christian living amid the in-betweenness of the kingdom-already and the kingdom-yet-to-be. Time Flies employs personal anecdotes and first-person meditations which position the text as a kind of spiritual autobiography, leading readers into the sanctification of the “scrupulous” Christian who must “self-sift” (Rossetti 1885, 2; Roe 2006). The aphorisms, poetry, and moral instruction bear echoes of Hebrew wisdom literature in the books of Proverbs and Sirach, the Psalms, and Ecclesiastes (Ludlow 2014). Rossetti adopts the posture of a wise teacher who helps her readers navigate suffering, obedience, relationships with others, and their relationship with the natural world. Time Flies calls readers to frame the measured work days of industrialized life with liturgical habits like prayer, contemplation, and religious reading. As a devotional companion in this vein, it joins the ranks of other Victorian religious literature crafted as beautiful material objects for regular contemplative use, such as John Keble’s The Christian Year (Lysack 2016). The rhetorical play in Time Flies enables it to cross genre boundaries, enacting the discontinuity of temporal life and the spirit’s longing for eternity. Faith is lived out within the temporal but exists as a habit of and type of the eternal, imbuing it with the power to determine the material.
A central question for Rossetti throughout Time Flies is what to do with the short time that is given to live between kingdom come and kingdom coming. Rossetti’s structure and rhetorical play at work offer an answer: Christian devotional experience embraces the daily-ness and discontinuity of temporal life while submitting it to the direction of the eternal. For Rossetti, Lynda Palazzo notes, “Faith and theological understanding are worth nothing unless carried forward into every detail of daily life” (Palazzo 2002, 95). Rossetti asks for a practical faith in Time Flies, transporting a Tractarian typological approach from page to life.
Although bound by her time in history and its views of women, Christina Rossetti was an influential moral and biblical theologian whose devotional prose demonstrates a sophisticated grasp of interpretive techniques consonant with her Anglo-Catholic commitments. By employing a Tractarian typological approach to biblical interpretation in Time Flies, Rossetti both constructs doctrine and enacts lived faith. At the same time, however, the simplicity of her approach to the eternal places Time Flies among the devotional literature treasured by Victorians for its homeliness and comfort. Time Flies avoids both the didactic and the quaint because of the literariness of Rossetti’s typological approach, making this entry into the canon of Victorian devotional literature an implicit challenge to the accepted conventions of gendered piety (D’Amico 1999). Although often interpreted as the poet of sweet, feminine renunciation, Rossetti does not shy away from either orthodoxy or orthopraxy, integrating the ecclesiastical and the civil and modeling the tension of lived experience for every saint.
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