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Mary MacLeod and the Poetry of Religious Surrender
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During my work as a research assistant for the Victorian Poetry Network, I came across the poetry of Mary MacLeod in Atalanta, a monthly magazine for middle-class young women published in London from October 1887 until September 1898.  Though Mary MacLeod wrote prolifically in the magazine between 1887 and 1893, she and her poetry have received almost no scholarly attention.  MacLeod seems to have begun her writing career in the January 1879 issue of Kind Words for Young People, when she won a contest for a religious poem entitled “The Death of Abel” (14-15).  According to the post-script after the poem, she was “aged nineteen” at the time.  Throughout her career writing for Atalanta, MacLeod continued to compose primarily religious verses aimed at young women.  I was immediately struck by the similarities between MacLeod’s religious poems and Christina Rossetti’s.  MacLeod’s “Victus Victor” (July 1889) and “In Winter” (January 1888) address the ideal surrender of individual gifts to an all-powerful God, as do Rossetti’s “A Candlemas Dialogue” (February 1888) and “Exultate Deo” (October 1888).

In “A Candlemas Dialogue,” the speaker struggles to conform to Christ’s will because of personal grief.  Christ’s voice asks her, “cannot love make thee / Carol for joy to me?”  Though the speaker has “compassed death,” she must remember that she has received the “tree of life’s own bough” in the cross.  This possession allows her to “give more and yet more” out of her “store.”  If the speaker wants to acquire God’s comfort and grace she must acknowledge what she has already been given and give that to God through charity.  The speaker answers Christ:

Because thou givest me Thyself, I will

Thy blessed word fulfill,

Give with both hands, and hoard by giving still:

Thy pleasure to fulfill,

And work Thy Will (26-30). 

She surrenders her personal story of grief to God’s larger story of the resurrection; she surrenders the life God has given her back to God.  MacLeod’s “Victus Victor” captures a similar bending of human will to divine command in the story of Father Damien, a priest who served the lepers on the island of Molokai and whose death in 1889 inspired MacLeod’s poem.  Mary Macleod’s “Victus Victor” captures a similar bending of human will to divine command in the story of Father Damien, a priest who served the leapers on the island of Molokai and died the year Macleod published her poem.  The speaker, Father Damien, resigns himself to his task: “no way but this?  What matter? Let it be” (1).  He diminishes his own role in charity to leave room for God’s miracles declaring:

Not mine to ease them for their mortal pain,

Not mine to bid the dead life live again—

But faithful love shall never toil in vain (16-18).

Father Damien has no powers of his own, no will of his own, except his faith in God.  Like the speaker of “A Candlemas Dialogue,” he imagines his reward as a union with God, a further self-effacement, in the  “sweetest gift” that  “God doth keep— / No earthly crown but His dear gift of—Sleep” (26-27).  In desiring sleep, Father Damien hopes that he can surrender to God in both his physical good works in earthly life earth and in a surrender of his soul in spiritual life.

While “A Candlemas Dialogue” and “Victus Victor” discuss surrender to God though charity, “Exultate Deo” and “In Winter” focus more explicitly on the spiritual accomplishment of surrender.  “Exultate Deo” compares the devotion of flowers, birds and sheep give to God simply by possessing “perfume and song and whiteness” (5) to man’s need to “ mount to prayer and praise” by “loftier ways” (9) since he “hath will and memory” (7). Man can only “walk in white” (12) when he enters into the “deep unto deep responsive” union with God (11).  The faithful must use the intellect to discipline mind and body into prayer.  Macleod’s “In Winter” works similarly as the winter, symbolic of the calming presence of God in death, shrouds the earth that “crowded pleasures” on the speaker’s sight (2). “Winter’s wings of healing” bring the speaker “their gift of peace” (31-21) if she can distance herself from the sensory delights of “life’s first dawn” and “summer’s mirth,” which prove “cold” (25-26).  While charity forms an essential component of religious surrender poems, the surrender must also restrain the intellectual and sensory faculties to make room for the spiritual.

All four of these poems exhibit this discipline in their form as well as their content.  Each stanza of “A Candlemas Dialoge” and “Victus Victor” employs only one rhyme.  Thus, every line in the first stanza of “A Candlemas Dialogue” ends with a rhyme for “thee”; every line in the second stanza rhymes with “voice.”  Macleod structures “Victus Victor” in triplets and never breaks rhyme. “Exultate Deo” rhyme scheme abcbcc deceff demonstrates Rossetti’s ability to mirror the two stanzas with a subtle shift.  “In Winter” adheres to the ababcdcd pattern conventional in women’s periodical poetry at the time.  According to Kathryn Ledbetter, the periodical poems often followed more conventional forms because they were meant to be “descriptive rather than metaphoric, conversational rather than rhetorical” (11).  These kinds of poems, argues Ledbetter, confirmed rather than challenged the image of women as saviors of civilization capable of submitting to home, country and Christianity (9).

Though Christianity encourages both males and females to submit to the will of God, the practice of charitable and spiritual surrender is most often associated with women.  In the Bible it is the Virgin Mary, after all, who first complies with the Christian project.  She responds to Gabriel, “behold the handmaiden of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38).  For middle-class, Anglican Victorians, women more and more often represented moral and spiritual discipline.  The education of women became central to solidifying their role as guides to a more just, civilized, and ethical society.  In Educating the Proper Woman Reader, Jennifer Phegley traces the development of women’s education through the periodicals aimed at them.  They served as  “tools to help women become culturally literate” through providing articles on science and health, reproducing great works of art, and including good, appropriate literature (Phegley 15).  L.T. Meade, the editor of Atalanta from its founding to 1893, had long been involved in furthering education for women and girls.   The “Atalanta Scholarship and Reading Union,” which features in every issue, provided questions about literary texts for further study and offered scholarships for excellent essays on these topics. Women’s periodicals provided a space for a woman to read and write “for herself and in her own language” (Ledbetter 13).  Better-educated women could provide better cultural, moral education for their children and hence halt what the late Victorians perceived as the gradual decay of society (Phegley 16). Because men often delayed marriage to spend more time professionalizing to enter the comfortable middle class, education became a productive task for women to engage in as they waited for marriage (84).  Even if some women could not marry, they still needed to participate in the civilizing mission.  Since the 1860s, the Victorians worried about what they called “redundant women” (Phegley 88).  Because of the higher survival rate of female babies, the immigration of men to the colonies, and male deaths in war, women outnumbered men (88). Many of the careers for girls suggested in Atalanta, such as sick-nursing in the November 1887 issue (Volume 1: 112) and teaching needlework in September 1888 (Volume 1: 715), played into the growing assumption that single women’s jobs would function as charitable outreach (Phegley 153).  ).  Rossetti herself participated in this kind of charitable work when she helped rescue fallen women in the Magdalen Movement (Ledbetter 85). Even as the culture gave women more advantages, it demanded that women return these advantages through motherhood, financial independence, and charity work.  This receiving of gifts only to surrender them again mirrors the surrender to God’s will in “A Candlemas Dialogue” and “Victus Victor.”

The more spiritual surrender in “Exultate Deo” and “In Winter” also fit into the broader context of women as saviors.  Ledbetter identifies an essential connection between women, poetry and religion (1).  Since women possessed a more simplistic faith, they could attain the most perfect expression of divine grace (73).  This expression of “a calm surrender to life’s events” (78), according to Ledbetter, was the real treasure God demanded from women (74). If women could accomplish surrender socially and expressively, perhaps they could teach men to do the same.  Poetry provided a medium for women to express Christian morals (2), but it also provided a place to practice the surrender of the soul, since, as Dinah Roe argues in Christina Rossetti’s Faithful Imagination (12), both religion and poetry demand the curbing of freedoms (either in lifestyle or form) in acknowledgement of a greater mystery (faith or poetic meaning). The Victorians did not only wish to progress in terms of finance, intellect and social justice.  They also wanted to progress in their ability to connect to God.  This connection would allow for progress in all other aspects of life (Ledbetter 69-70).  And women and their writing held the key to that salvation.

While Rossetti Macleod’s poems in Atalanta do mirror these contemporary realities, they also take on a more active role than reflection: they wrestle with the stresses young readers of Atalanta faced in surrendering their newly educated minds to society, their individual souls to God. In “A Candlemas Dialogue” and “Victus Victor” the strict forms of the poems occasionally inhibit expression.  The individual will, represented by the content of the poem, should fully complement the form of the poem, representative of God’s will.  However, in “A Candlemas Dialogue” and “Victus Victor” some of the rhymes indicate that the conformity makes the expression of content awkward or repetitive.  In the fourth stanza of Rossetti’s poem the syntax of the sentence fumbles to incorporate the rhyme.  Lines 29 and 20 read, “not empty, Lord, to-day / Send me away” when the sense of these lines would read, “Lord, to-day do not send me away empty.”  Similarly, lines four and five of “Victus Victor” confuse verb and object: “O knight of god, than death a deadlier foe / With poisoned breath shall lay thy valor low.”  If the poem did not have to rhyme in triplets these lines could read “O knight of God, a deadlier foe than death / With poisoned breath shall lay thy valor low.”  The persistence of single rhymes in both these poems also results in repetition.  Rossetti reuses “thee,” “me,” “voice,” “rejoice,” “bough,” “thou,” “fulfill” and “store,” again and again throughout “A Candlemas Dialogue.”  Macleod repeats “foe” and “low.”  Even as these repetitions and syntax inversions muddle the sense of the poem, they add to the religious significance of the form.  The repetition creates a meditative effect; the inversion mimics the syntax of Latin, the language of the early Church.

“Exultate Deo” and “In Winter” contain conflicts between ideas rather than form.  In “Exultate Deo,” the comparison of the faith of flowers, birds and sheep with the faith of man reveals a complex relationship.   Man’s faith, “deep unto deep responsive” (11), provides a more rewarding relationship.  The faith of the natural world, while more shallow, is easier to attain.  The flowers, birds, and sheep attain their faith by default, simply by being what they are.  Man has to “mount” up to faith, indicating a struggle.  He must rise to God as  “fire” rises  “unto fire” (10) and “height to height” (11).  Man must continually face his near-equality to God and renounce his own power.   The line “fire unto fire” implies a burning of the fire of man in the fire of God.  Just as a fire burns to white ash, so must man burn “until he walk in white” (12).  For Man, and for the presumably female speaker, the surrender to God requires labor and pain.  The speaker’s intimate knowledge of the struggle in human faith challenges the idea that women, like the natural world, serve God without strain. The poem’s simultaneous pity and envy for simpler faith distances the speaker from it and instead identifies her with man’s experience.   In “In Winter” the speaker also acknowledges the pain in spiritual surrender. Though winter’s peace relieves her of the “fretting cares of life” (18), it also removes “the idle wishes thronging” (19).  To attain the peace of winter—the peace of God—the speaker must deny her wishes and dispose of them with her cares just as “the thorns and roses” enclose in “one grave…beneath the winter snow” (23-24).  While the speaker praises the calmness of winter, she also mentions the “autumn gales” that mark its beginning and “reft us / of all we loved on earth.”  As in “A Candlemas Dialogue,” while the outcome of surrender allows peace and connection, the process of undergoing this surrender pains the speaker.

When placed in dialogue with Rossetti’s religious poetry and the tradition of women’s periodical poetry in the late nineteenth century, Mary MacLeod’s work sheds light on how religious surrender in the “high culture” poems of Rossetti may have found a wider audience in the periodicals.  Most importantly, the poems in Atalanta do not merely reflect these concerns, but also provide a model for working through them.

-Raya M, Research Assistant for VPN at the University of Victoria

           Works Cited

Ledbetter, Kathryn.  British Victorian Women’s Periodicals: Beauty, Civilization and

            Poetry.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.  Palgrave Connect.  15

November 2012.  Online.

Macleod, Mary.  “The Death of Abel.”  Kind Words for Young People (January 1879):

14-15.  19th Century UK Periodicals.  15 November 2012.  Online.

— .“The Garden of Sleep.”  Atalanta Volume 4. Issue 41 (February 1891): 331.

— .  In Winter.”  Atalanta Volume 1. Issue 4 (January 1888): 186

— . “Victus Victor.”  Atalanta Volume 2. Issue 10. (July 1889): 503..

Phegley, Jennifer.  Educating the Proper Woman Reader: Victorian Family Literary

            Magazines and the Cultural Health of the Nation.  Columbus, Ohio: the Ohio

State University Press, 2004.

Roe, Dinah.  Christina Rossetti’s Faithful Imagination: Devotional Poetry and Prose. 

London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Rossetti, Christina.  “A Candlemas Dialogue.”  Atalanta Volume 1. Issue 5 (February

1888): 264.

— .  “Exultate Deo.”  Atalanta Volume 2. Issue 1 (October 1888): 3.

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Mary MacLeod and the Poetry of Religious Surrender by Raya MacKenzie, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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