Poetic Beyond Belief: Shakespeare, Christina Rossetti, Gwendolyn Brooks

Charles LaPorte
University of Washington

How much should a poet’s religious beliefs matter to literary scholars?  This paper considers three famous poets whose work demonstrates a high level of Biblical literacy and a deep familiarity with genres of religious discourse such as prayer, scriptural exegesis, and homiletics.  These poets—William Shakespeare, Christina Rossetti, and Gwendolyn Brooks—are seldom studied in close conjunction with one another, owning to the structures of chronology and geography by which university-level English Studies has long been organized. I treat them here as diverging illustrations for a discussion of religious belief in anglophone verse. For instance, we do not actually know anything about the private beliefs of Shakespeare. We know that Rossetti was a life-long Anglican who wrote devotional prose and verse. And we know that Brooks identified as a non-religious person, distancing herself from the church in which she was raised (Chicago’s Carter Temple Colored Methodist Episcopal Church), as from organized religion more generally.  Cases such as Shakespeare’s show the benefits of addressing the religious element of texts independently of any speculation about private belief, but cases like those of Rossetti and Brooks show different ways that belief remains an appealing category to literary scholars.  For instance, scholars regularly and reasonably read Rossetti as an example of High Church Anglican art and Brooks as an example of secularized iconoclasm.  Yet it remains possible (and may be equally valid) to read Rossetti as a heretic and Brooks as a half-believing Christian prophet.  A flexible framework for the issue of belief in literary studies—one that acknowledges literature’s unruliness—may prove more illuminating than the categories that we habitually use.