Rossetti, Christina (1830–1894)
Rossetti, Christina (1830–1894)
Celebrated Victorian poet who first drew public attention to the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Name variations: (pseudonym) Ellen Alleyne. Born Christina Rossetti in London, England, on December 5, 1830; died of cancer at her residence in London on December 29, 1894; buried at Highgate Cemetery; daughter of Gabriele Rossetti (an Italian refugee and later professor of Italian at King's College, London) and Lavinia Polidori Rossetti; sister ofMaria Francesca Rossetti (1827–1876), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), the famous painter and poet, and William Michael Rossetti (1829–1906), a civil servant and for some time the mainstay of the family; never married; no children.
Enjoyed the same educational advantages as her siblings; at an early age, was encouraged to mix freely with adults—a rarity in Victorian families of the time; remained unmarried, despite two engagements: James Collinson (1848) and Charles Bagot Cayley (1866); suffered from a mysterious malady, exophthalmic bronchocele (1871–73), and remained an invalid the rest of her life.
Goblin Market and other poems (1862); The Prince's Progress (1866); Sing-Song (nursery rhymes, 1872); A Pageant (1881); New Poems (unpublished poems collected by her brother William and printed after her death in 1896).
Works of religious edification:
Speaking likenesses (1874); Seek and Find (1879); Called to be Saints; Letter and Spirit (1882); Time Flies: a Reading Diary (1885); The Face of the Deep (1892); Verses (1893).
Like many female writers and artists in the past, Christina Rossetti suffered from the belief that she was intruding into what was essentially thought of as a male world. This was compounded by the fact that her brilliant, but perhaps cossetted brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was a leading founder of what came to be known as the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. This was a circle of young men—Ford Madox Brown, Thomas Woolner, Holman Hunt, and Sir John Everett Millais—resolved to abandon the conventionalities inherited from the 18th century, and to revive the detailed elaboration and mystical interpretation of nature that characterized medieval art. Inevitably, when people thought of Rossetti, they thought of Dante Gabriel (though to be fair, he always encouraged his sister's poetic work), and this was to last throughout Christina's lifetime, and for many years thereafter.
Though some critics would disagree with Ford Madox Ford, grandson of Madox Brown, that Christina was "the most valuable poet that the Victorian Age produced" (indeed, when he made this statement in 1911, many readers thought it lunatic), posterity has awarded her her due and has taken some of the more exalted Victorian writers, such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold, and Algernon Swinburne, down a peg. As the critic C.H. Sisson explains, "The simplicity and directness of her language, the intimate fall of her rhymes, make her immediately accessible in a way that the more oversized figures are not."
Born in London in 1830, Christina Rossetti was the youngest of four children who appeared one after another in the space of four years. Her father Gabriele Rossetti arrived in London as a refugee from the French-controlled Kingdom of Naples in 1824. He was the son of a blacksmith and locksmith, and had become in turn an official operatic librettist and the custodian of ancient bronzes in the Naples Museum. But he dabbled too much in politics for the likings of the Bourbon kings and hence took refuge in England. As well as becoming professor of Italian at King's College, London, Gabriele also published patriotic verse which was subsequently banned in Italy—thus earning him something of a reputation as a revolutionary. In 1826, he married Lavinia Polidori , daughter of Gaetano Polidori, who had at one time been secretary to the poet Alfieri, and had witnessed the fall of the Bastille in 1789 before crossing to England to teach Italian. He too was a writer and established a small printing press in London.
Christina thus grew up in a family circle both literary and intellectual—if not particularly well off. A constant stream of Italian exiles visited her father's house, and, as the children were fluent in the language (Christina was to later write some of her verse in Italian), they were able to take part in political, artistic, and literary conversations with this flashy circle. But Christina did not develop, as one perhaps might have expected, into a sociable and expansive woman. Even when she later mixed intimately with the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, she maintained that sense of reserve and isolation that was to characterize so many of her poems. As Ford Madox Ford later wrote, "While her arty brother and his friends were intent on amazing the world," Christina sat "up in the fireless top back bedroom on the corner of the cracked wash-stand," writing "on the back of old letters."
Rossetti, Maria Francesca (1827–1876)
English author. Born in 1827; died in 1876; daughter of Gabriele Rossetti (an Italian refugee and later professor of Italian at King's College, London) and Lavinia Polidori ; sister of Christina Rossetti (1830–1894), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), and William Michael Rossetti (1829–1906).
Maria Francesca Rossetti wrote A Shadow of Dante (1870). In 1874, age 47, she became an Anglican nun.
This sense of isolation can partly be explained by the fact that Christina was profoundly religious by temperament. As a member of a family of ardent Italian patriots, she could hardly become a Catholic (the pope was firmly against any idea of Italian unification). But her devotion assumed a high Anglican character, and she found much congenial occupation in church work and the composition of books of religious edification—particularly in the latter part of her life.
This religious absorption had the unfortunate result of causing an estrangement between herself and a suitor to whom she was deeply attached. James Collinson was a painter with connections with the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. In 1850, Dante Gabriele introduced him to his sister, and Christina seems to have fallen in love with him. Collinson, however, had converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism, and Christina refused his proposal of marriage. But when Collinson became an Anglican again, she accepted him. Then, this "right meaning man, of timorous conscience" as William Rossetti described him, once more became a Catholic; this was the last straw as far as Christina was concerned. The renunciation of her lover was a blow from which Christina Rossetti never fully recovered; it accounts for the melancholy and morbid character of much of her poetry. A further suitor appeared in 1866—a scholar called Charles Bagot Cayley. Again, religion interposed to bring the affair to nought. Cayley was an agnostic, an outlook that was anathema to Rossetti.
Christina Rossetti seems … to be the most valuable poet that the Victorian age produced.
—Ford Madox Ford
There is no doubt that in her youth Christina was both vivacious and witty, as evidenced by a prose piece she wrote as an adolescent, "Maude, a Story for Girls." Clearly a self-portrait, the narrative occasionally reveals the young Christina. In one scene where Maude writes a melancholy sonnet beginning, "Yes, I too could face death and never shrink," the heroine then "yawned, leaned back in her chair, and wondered how she could fill her time till dinner." Although Christina remained lively and witty in her conversation throughout her life, the experience of her unhappy love affairs undoubtedly accentuated a disposition to self-denial and renunciation, which was to become an ordinary habit of mind. The first four lines of the poem "L.E.L" sum up the adult Rossetti:
Downstairs I laugh, I sport and jest with all;
But in my solitary room above
I turn my face in silence to the wall;
My heart is breaking for a little love.
And again in "The Prince's Progress," she expresses the agony of hopeless love and chances missed:
Too late for love, too late for joy,
Too late, too late!
You loitered on the road too long,
You trifled at the gate.
It is interesting to speculate how Christina's life and her work might have changed had she accompanied Florence Nightingale to the Crimea in 1855, as was at one time proposed. The distressed circumstances of her family, however, caused by the death of her beloved Polidori grandparents in 1853 and the disabling illness which afflicted her father, necessitated her remaining in England. Her outward life was thus to remain quiet and uneventful even by 19th-century standards.
The first recorded verses Rossetti composed, and dictated when she was too young to write, are reputed to have been: "Cecilia never went to school/ Without her Gladiator." The first known written record is a poem written for her mother's birthday when Christina was 12, and printed by her grandfather, Gaetano Polidori, at his private press. A little volume of verse was privately printed in the same manner in 1847. A few years later, when her brother, Dante Gabriel, and his Pre-Raphaelite friends founded a literary journal called The Germ, Christina, though only 19, contributed several poems of great beauty, under the pseudonym Ellen Alleyne.
In 1862, her first published volume Goblin Market and Other Poems was printed (with a frontispiece in black-and-white by Dante Gabriel). It contains some of her best work, and indeed many critics believe that Christina attained a height which she never reached again. The title poem was the first Pre-Raphaelite writing to catch the imagination of the reading public; thus this quiet, introspective young woman stole a march on her more well-known poetic colleagues (Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon was published in 1865, and Dante Gabriel's The Blessed Damozel not until 1870). The poem is highly original in conception, style, and structure. Some critics consider it to be as imaginative as Coleridge's Ancient Mariner and comparable only to Shakespeare for the insight shown into "unhuman but spiritual natures." Moreover, "it has," as the critic David Wright says, "a vitality and sensuousness allied to simplicity, clearness, and intellectual coherence, in notable contrast to the lushness of most of the poetry of the period." Goblin Market has often passed for a poem for children, a tribute to its immediacy and the dancing lilt of the rhymes:
Morning and evening
Maids hear the Goblins cry
"Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy."
But as a fairy tale of temptation and devotion, it contains strong religious and sexual undertones.
Other poems in this first volume also contain great power and beauty. "Up-hill" expresses a world-weariness and religious stoicism which must have been a theme familiar to the reader of 1862. But its simplicity of language was new:
Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.
In "In The Round Tower at Jhansi," Rossetti finds a theme dear to her heart. It is the story of a true incident which took place during the Indian Mutiny (1857–1858), and tells of a young couple preparing to commit suicide rather than be torn to pieces by "The swarming howling wretches below":
Kiss and kiss: "It is not pain
Thus to kiss and die.
One kiss more."—"And yet one again."—
Goblin Market and Other Poems was unsurpassed by Rossetti's later volumes of poetry—The Prince's Progress (1866) and A Pageant (1881)—but like the first volume, both contain lyrical poems of great beauty. In the title poem of The Prince's Progress, Dante Gabriel's hand can be seen at work. Christina wrote the last 60 lines of what was to become a 500-line poem in a single day in 1861. Four years later, at her brother's behest, she wrote the long narrative, allegorical lines to precede the original verses. This was a departure from the lyrical style in which Rossetti excelled, and consequently the end result lacks the spontaneity of Goblin Market (she did, however, resist her brother's suggestion that she should include a tournament in it, in the best Victorian tradition).
In "Memory" from the 1866 volume, Rossetti writes again about the renunciation of her lovers. Her style is one of controlled passion yet simplicity:
I shut the door to face the naked truth,
I stood alone—I faced the truth alone.
None know the choice I made; I make it still.
None know the choice I made and broke my heart,
Breaking mine idol: I have braced my will
Once, chosen for once my part.
In other poems from these two volumes, particularly when nature and art combine, the result is exquisite. "A Birthday" sees Rossetti in an exalted mood:
My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a watered shoot:
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickest fruit.
"An Apple Gathering" returns to the more melancholy theme of love that never bears fruit, using the plucking of apple blossom as a simile (once plucked, no apples will appear):
I plucked pink blossoms from mine apple tree
And wore them all evening in my hair
Then in due season when I went to see
I found no apples there.
Rossetti's feelings are conveyed so intensely that even her less important lyrics contain some touch of genius. Her nursery rhymes (Sing-Song, 1872), though not comparable to true nursery rhymes handed down through the ages, show a certain deftness:
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads
The wind is passing by
As she grew older and her health failed, Rossetti increasingly devoted herself to religious writing. Where poems do appear, as in Called to be Saints (1881) and Time Flies (1885), they are merely adjuncts to a course of devotional reading. Though almost unreadable to the modern scholar, they were popular in their day, and contain nothing of the sentimental moralism which afflicted so much of Victorian religious writing. Her Christmas carol, "In the bleak mid-winter," is still a favorite among Christian communities throughout the world.
Christina Rossetti died of cancer on December 29, 1894, in Torrington Square, London, after a long illness. In 1896, her unpublished poems, gleaned from many periodicals, were published by her surviving brother William, who included a short introduction of her life. Rossetti's reputation rests on the fact that her verse contributed significantly to the direction in which the poetry of the 20th century was to move. But she will perhaps be best remembered and appreciated for the searing directness, integrity, and lyricism of her poetry.
Breen, Jennifer. Victorian Women Poets. Everyman, 1994.
The Complete poems of Christina Rossetti. Lousiana State University Press, 1979.
Leighton, Angela. Victorian Women Poets: A Critical Reader. Blackwell, 1996.
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Marsh, Jan. Christina Rossetti: Poems and Prose. Everyman, 1994.
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Christina Rossetti: The Illustrated Poets. Oxford University Press.
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Thomas, Frances. Christina Rossetti: A Biography. London, UK: Virago, 1994.
Christopher Gibb , freelance writer and editor and Oxford University scholar, London, England