World Literature

Christina Rossetti

 

BORN: 1830, London

DIED: 1894, London

NATIONALITY: British

GENRE: Poetry, fiction, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Verses (1847)

Goblin Market, and Other Poems (1862)

The Prince’s Progress, and Other Poems (1866)

Commonplace, and Other Stories (1870)

A Pageant, and Other Poems (1881)

 

 

Christina Rossetti. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

 

Overview

One of the English language’s best-known female poets, British author Christina Rossetti is remembered for her literary inheritance as much as for her literary contributions. Rossetti, whose work gained renewed interest with the dawn of feminist criticism, was an important member of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, an artistic and literary group that aspired to recapture the aesthetics of Italian religious painting before the Renaissance painter Raphael. In her exploration of themes including death, female creativity, sisterhood, and unrequited love, Rossetti became the voice of Victorian womanhood. Her work is now celebrated as much for its innovation and beauty as for its feminine perspective.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Born into Artistic Family. Christina Georgina Rossetti was born on December 5, 1830, in London, England. The daughter of a half-Italian mother and an Italian poet father, Rossetti was encouraged to indulge in the family passions for language, poetry, and art. She had a distinctly artistic family: her two older brothers, William Michael and Dante Gabriel, were active in literary circles of the time, and Maria, her sister, was a published author.

As a girl, Rossetti was educated at home by her mother, who blended a love of learning with devout religious beliefs, introducing her daughter to literary works in the tradition of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). Rossetti’s Anglo-Catholic faith colored the remainder of her life. Equally influential were her parents’ efforts to subdue her high-spirited, fiery personality.

Began Writing Poetry. In love with words and influenced by dramatic novels and legends such as A Thousand and One Arabian Nights (c. 800), Rossetti began writing poetry by age eleven, collaborating with her siblings on a family magazine and developing other artistic interests. When Rossetti’s father, an exiled poet and Dante Alighieri scholar, was forced to resign from his teaching position due to ill health, Rossetti and her siblings contributed whatever they could to the family income. In this time in Great Britain, there were limited career choices for respectable women, with teaching as a governess the most common. Rossetti, however, devoted herself to writing for extra money, remaining at home with her ailing father while her sister, brother, and mother worked outside the home.

Ill Health. The family’s financial situation continued to be dismal between 1843 and 1848, when Rossetti herself physically collapsed. The reason for her decline in health has never been fully explained and continues to interest historians. One of these scholars, Jan Marsh, has suggested that Rossetti was sexually abused by her father during his illness, leading to her attempt to escape her family obligations through the life of an invalid. Whether or not this was the cause of her health problems, Rossetti remained in delicate health for the rest of her life.

First Publications. Rossetti had collected over fifty poems by the age of sixteen, thirty-nine of which were privately printed as Verses in 1847. Encouraged by her brothers, Rossetti sought wider publication and began to experiment with a blend of allegory and fantasy. Rossetti’s brother Dante Gabriel was involved in the growing Pre-Raphaelite movement—in which artists, testing and often defying all conventions of art, emphasized eroticized medievalism with symbolism that produced a moody atmosphere—and Rossetti followed his lead, even sitting for portraits in the Pre-Raphaelite style and experimenting with medieval themes.

Preoccupied with religious questions, Rossetti continued to write poetry, even venturing into prose for her 1850 novel Maude: A Story for Girls, which was published after her death. Meanwhile, her family’s fortunes continued to suffer. By the time her father died in April 1854, she was dependent on her brother William for support.

Around this time, Rossetti volunteered at an institution for fallen women (such as prostitutes, unmarried mothers, and homeless women), where she became interested in the fates of women with compromised morals, a subject she explored in her later poetry. The Victorian era in England, so named because of its long-serving monarch, Queen Victoria, was marked by a spirit of reform and social justice. Reform laws of the period enfranchised the new middle class and the working class, while humanitarian legislation did away with some of the more outrageous abuses of the poor and improved conditions for those who worked in factories. The reformation of fallen women was part of such concerns.

Literary Fame. Though some of her poems were published in magazines during the 1850s, most of Rossetti’s work was not commercially published until 1862, when her most famous work, Goblin Market, and Other Poems, appeared. The book’s namesake, ‘‘Goblin Market,’’ is a long poem that depicts two sisters’ struggle with teasing goblins who drive them mad with forbidden fruit. The poem has become Rossetti’s most famous, drawing feminist, Marxist, social, and psychoanalytic analyses from various critics. Other poems in the collection grapple with questions of vulnerability, femininity, and sisterhood. Goblin Market, and Other Poems gained Rossetti fame and praise and has remained popular due to its skill and subject matter.

Its publication did not interrupt Rossetti’s life. In the years following the publication of Goblin Market, and Other Poems, she turned down her second marriage proposal on religious grounds, recovered from a lung disease later thought to be tuberculosis (a contagious lung disease that was often fatal at that time), and began work on her next collection. The Prince’s Progress, and Other Poems appeared in 1866 with illustrations provided by her brother Dante Gabriel. Her next work, Commonplace, and Other Short Stories (1870), marked her first experiments with short fiction. Though the book of sophisticated literary fairy tales failed commercially, critics still find stories like ‘‘Nick’’ and ‘‘Hero’’ notable.

Popular Books for Children. After battling Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disease that causes overactivity of the thyroid gland, Rossetti was weak and exhausted. Nevertheless, she kept writing, this time producing a book of children’s poetry called Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872). The book, which was accompanied by Pre-Raphaelite illustrations by Arthur Hughes, is considered one of the most significant works of nineteenth- century children’s verse. Spurred on by the book’s popularity, Rossetti next published Speaking Likenesses (1874), a collection of warped, terrifying fairy tales.

Though many critics dismiss A Pageant, and Other Poems (1881) as one of Rossetti’s weakest works, the book represented a break for Rossetti. In her ‘‘Monna Innominata’’ love sonnets, Rossetti explored love with a sense of regret and sadness that some consider to be characteristic of Victorian womanhood. (During the Victorian era, there were many pressures placed on women to live up to an impossible ideal.) As a woman writing in a field dominated by men, Rossetti explored love in unconventional ways, combining questions about romance with speculation about a romantic union with God.

Later Life and Death. Rossetti, who had always combined her literary output with religious devotion, became even more committed to spiritual service during her later years. After acting as caretaker to her sickly relatives, she turned her mind to religious writing, continuing to pray and attend church services daily. In 1892, Rossetti was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. The cancer recurred the next year, and, after months of suffering, she died on December 29, 1894.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Rossetti's famous contemporaries include:

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861): British poet who was known for her Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850).

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910): British painter who was one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. His paintings include The Light of the World (1853-1854).

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865): American politician who served as the sixteenth American president during the American Civil War.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886): American poet who was reclusive and employed unconventional dashes, capitalization, and broken rhyming rhythm in her work. Her complete and mostly unaltered poems were first collected in The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1955).

Nellie Bly (1864-1922): American journalist who was known for her sensationalistic work, including an undercover expose in which she faked a mental illness to study a mental institution from the inside.

Anne Sullivan (1866-1936): American educator known for her work with the blind and deaf Helen Keller.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Rossetti's writings for children retold popular fairy tales in imaginatively different ways. Here is a list of other fairy tales, legends, and children's stories that have been reworked from diverse perspectives:

The Penelopiad (2005), a novella by Margaret Atwood. Atwood retells the events of the Greek epic the Odyssey from the point of view of Odysseus's wife Penelope.

Grendel (1971), a novel by John Gardner. In this novel, Gardner retells the Anglo-Saxon story of Beowulf the warrior from the point of view of Grendel, one of the ''monsters'' that Beowulf fights.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (1995), a novel by Gregory Maguire. This novel presents the story of the early life of the Wicked Witch of the West of The Wizard of Oz (1900).

Enchanted (2007), a film directed by Kevin Lima. Through the story about a modern-day princess's search for love in New York City, this movie satirizes traditional ''beautiful princess'' interpretations of fairy tales.

The Stinky Cheese Man, and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (1992), a collection of stories by Jon Scieszka. This assortment of fractured fairy tales is filled with sarcastic humor.

 

Works in Literary Context

Rossetti has long been considered one of the Victorian era’s most important female poets. She drew inspiration from the religious writing of such poets as Dante and Milton, as well as influenced writers as diverse as Algernon Charles Swinburne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Charlotte Mew, Virginia Woolf, and e. e. cummings. Aligned with the Pre-Raphaelite movement during her lifetime, Rossetti was considered to be one of her age’s greatest poets and was praised as England’s new female laureate when Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in the 1860s. While readers have generally judged Rossetti’s poetry to be less political and intellectual than that of Barrett Browning, they do recognize Rossetti as the more talented lyricist, her poetry displaying precision in diction, form, and tone.

Pre-Raphaelite Connections. While Rossetti was closely aligned with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, her work differs from theirs in several key ways. First of all, Rossetti’s deep religious convictions diverged from those of Pre-Raphaelite artists and writers. Second, her use of fantastical elements clashed with the realism embraced by the Pre-Raphaelites. Furthermore, Rossetti’s style is almost deceptively simple. She favored nursery rhymes and fairy tales, filling them with complex symbolism and allegorical elements. In spite of these artistic variations, Rossetti remained close to the Pre-Raphaelites for much of her life.

Religious Connections. Having faced several serious illnesses during her lifetime, Rossetti often believed she was close to death, and her work reflects themes of both religious devotion and mortality. For example, she wrote the prose piece The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on the Apocalypse (1892) after she recovered from Graves’ disease. Although critics often claim that her religious prose is inferior to her verse, Rossetti’s strong faith inspired some of her finest poetry.

Religious conviction controlled Rossetti’s personal life as well as her writing. As a young woman, she rejected two separate marriage proposals because the men’s beliefs did not conform to the tenets of the Anglican Church. In the sonnet sequence ‘‘Monna Innominata,’’ included in A Pageant, and Other Poems, she explores the denial of human love for the sake of religious purity.

Feminist Connections. Though Rossetti was unsure about her own positions regarding women’s suffrage and feminism, her subject matter focuses extensively on issues of sisterhood, sexual oppression, and gender roles, making her one of the most important feminists of the nineteenth century. The revival of interest in Rossetti’s work during the feminist movement of the 1970s introduced her ideas to a new generation of writers.

 

Works in Critical Context

Rossetti’s poetry and stories enjoyed critical success during her lifetime, earning her comparisons with eminent female poets of the day such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning. One reviewer in the October 1876 Catholic World called her the ‘‘queen of the Preraphaelite school.’’ However, more recent critics have remarked that the Pre-Raphaelite elements in Rossetti’s work have been overemphasized.

Rossetti’s literary reputation declined as modernist works gained more popularity. After fading into relative obscurity throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Rossetti’s literary reputation was restored once her work was rediscovered by feminist critics. These critics appreciated Rossetti’s honesty about a woman’s place in Victorian society, her social commitment to fallen women, and her attention to issues of sisterhood and gender identity. Largely because of feminist critiques of her work, Rossetti has been restored to the canon of important Victorian-era poets.

Goblin Market, and Other Poems. Rossetti’s 1862 poem ‘‘Goblin Market’’ is her most famous work. Featuring a nursery-rhyme style and a ghoulish story of temptation, seduction, and salvation, the poem has gained attention for its exploration of sisterhood (feminist critiques), its sexual content (psychological critiques), its exploration of fallen women (social and cultural critiques), and even its vision of women as goods in a marketplace (Marxist critiques). It appeared to general praise, garnering a reputation as a work of literary genius and receiving wide attention in the newspapers and literary journals of its time.

Today, critics ignore Rossetti’s insistence that she intended no allegorical meaning in ‘‘Goblin Market’’ and offer a range of interpretations for the two sisters’ responses to the temptation of the goblin fruit. Some read the work as a moral allegory of temptation, indulgence, sacrifice, and salvation. The poem has also been approached from a specifically Christian viewpoint, with its reenactment of the temptation in the Garden of Eden and a Christlike offer of redemption through sacrifice.

Feminist interpretations of ‘‘Goblin Market’’ focus on its image of sisterhood, while psychoanalytic readings consider the sisters as two aspects of one psyche and emphasize the poem’s sexuality. Marxist critics call attention to the separation of domestic and commercial areas and to the sisters’ attempts to do business in a market system that regards women as exchangeable objects. Other scholars have seen Lizzie’s redemption of Laura as a direct critique of the Victorian cultural view of the fallen woman.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Rossetti’s deep religious sentiments affected not only her work, but also her life; so much so that she spurned two romantic relationships. Research the primary characteristics of the Anglo-Catholic revival practiced by Rossetti and her family. Write an essay in which you share your findings, while also addressing how your spiritual beliefs affect the friendships you have.

2. Rossetti’s ‘‘Goblin Market’’ is her most famous piece of poetry, earning her comparisons with another eminent female poet of the day, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Using your library and the Internet, write a paper about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s life and poetry.

3. Rossetti’s work was largely forgotten throughout the twentieth century. However, the dawn of feminist criticism brought a revitalized interest in her work. What facets of feminist criticism might be responsible for this renewed interest? Create a presentation with your findings.

4. The figure of Dante Alighieri was influential in Rossetti’s family. Her father was an important scholar of Italian literature, and every one of her siblings went through a Dante phase. If you were a writer, who would be your most important literary influence? Write a response paper to this question.

5. Rossetti is known for presenting complex ideas through seemingly simple fairy tales. Reinterpret your favorite fairy tale in short-story form.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Battiscombe, Georgina. Christina Rossetti: A Divided Life. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981.

Charles, Edna Kotin. Christina Rossetti: Critical Perspectives, 1862-1982. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 1985.

Marsh, Jan. Christina Rossetti: A Writer’s Life. New York: Viking, 1995.

Mayberry, Katherine J. Christina Rossetti and the Poetry of Discovery. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

Smulders, Sharon. Christina Rossetti Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1996.

Web Sites

‘‘Christina Rossetti.’’ Victorian Web. Retrieved March 16, 2008, from http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/crossetti/.