Christina Georgina Rossetti
Biography of Christina Georgina Rossetti
Christina Rossetti was an English poet who wrote a variety of romantic, devotional, and children's poems. She is best known for her long poem Goblin Market, her love poem Remember, and for the words of the Christmas carol In the Bleak Midwinter.
Early Life and Education
Christina Rossetti was born at 38 Charlotte Street (now 105 Hallam Street), London to Gabriele Rossetti, a poet and a political exile from Vasto, Abruzzo, and Frances Polidori, the sister of Lord Byron's friend and physician, John William Polidori. She had two brothers and a sister: Dante became an influential artist and poet, and William and Maria both became writers. Christina, the youngest, was a lively child. She dictated her first story to her mother before she had learned to write.
Rossetti was educated at home by her mother, who had her study religious works, classics, fairy tales and novels. Rossetti delighted in the works of Keats, Scott, Ann Radcliffe and Monk Lewis. The influence of the work of Dante Alighieri, Petrarch and other Italian writers filled the home and would have a deep impact on Rossetti's later writing. Their home was open to visiting Italian scholars, artists and revolutionaries. The family homes in Bloomsbury at 38 and later 50 Charlotte Street were within easy reach of Madam Tussauds, London Zoo and the newly opened Regent's Park, which she visited regularly; In contrast to her parents, Rossetti was very much a London child, and, it seems, a happy one.
In the 1840s, her family faced severe financial difficulties due to the deterioration of her father's physical and mental health. In 1843, he was diagnosed with persistent bronchitis, possibly tuberculosis, and faced losing his sight. He gave up his teaching post at King's College and though he lived another 11 years, he suffered from depression and was never physically well again. Rossetti's mother began teaching in order to keep the family out of poverty and Maria became a live-in governess, a prospect that Christina Rossetti dreaded. At this time her brother William was working for the Excise Office and Gabriel was at art school, leading Christina's life at home to become one of increasing isolation. When she was 14, Rossetti suffered a nervous breakdown and left school. Bouts of depression and related illness followed. During this period she, her mother, and her sister became deeply interested in the Anglo-Catholic movement that developed in the Church of England. Religious devotion came to play a major role in Rossetti's life.
In her late teens, Rossetti became engaged to the painter James Collinson, the first of three suitors. He was, like her brothers Dante and William, one of the founding members of the avant-garde artistic group, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (founded 1848). The engagement was broken in 1850 when he reverted to Catholicism. Later she became involved with the linguist Charles Cayley, but declined to marry him, also for religious reasons. The third offer came from the painter John Brett, whom she also refused.
Rossetti sat for several of Dante Rossetti's most famous paintings. In 1848, she was the model for the Virgin Mary in his first completed oil painting, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, which was the first work to be inscribed with the initials 'PRB', later revealed to signify the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The following year she modelled again for his depiction of the Annunciation, Ecce Ancilla Domini. In 1849 she became seriously ill again, suffering from depression and sometime around 1857 had a major religious crisis.
Rossetti began writing down and dating her poems from 1842, mostly imitating her favoured poets. From 1847 she began experimenting with verse forms such as sonnets, hymns and ballads, drawing narratives from the bible, folk takes and the lives of the saints. Her early pieces often feature meditations on death and loss, in the Romantic tradition. She published her first poem, which appeared in the Athenaeum, in 1848 when she was 18. Under the pen-name "Ellen Alleyne", she contributed to the literary magazine, The Germ, published by the Pre-Raphaelites from January - April 1850 and edited by her brother William. This marked the beginning of her public career.
Her most famous collection, Goblin Market and Other Poems, appeared in 1862, when she was 31. It received widespread critical praise, establishing her as the main female poet of the time. Hopkins, Swinburne and Tennyson lauded her work. and with the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1861 Rossetti was hailed as her natural successor. The title poem is one of Rossetti's best known works. Although it is ostensibly about two sisters' misadventures with goblins, critics have interpreted the piece in a variety of ways: seeing it as an allegory about temptation and salvation; a commentary on Victorian gender roles and female agency; and a work about erotic desire and social redemption. Rossetti was a volunteer worker from 1859 to 1870 at the St. Mary Magdalene "house of charity" in Highgate, a refuge for former prostitutes and it is suggested Goblin Market may have been inspired by the "fallen women" she came to know. There are parallels with Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner given both poems' religious themes of temptation, sin and redemption by vicarious suffering. She was ambivalent about women's suffrage, but many scholars have identified feminist themes in her poetry. She was opposed to slavery (in the American South), cruelty to animals (in the prevalent practice of animal experimentation), and the exploitation of girls in under-age prostitution.
Rossetti maintained a very large circle of friends and correspondents and continued to write and publish for the rest of her life, primarily focusing on devotional writing and children's poetry. In 1892, Rossetti wrote The Face of the Deep, a book of devotional prose, and oversaw the production of a new and enlarged edition of Sing-Song, published in 1893.
In the later decades of her life, Rossetti suffered from Graves Disease, diagnosed in 1872 suffering a nearly fatal attack in the early 1870s. In 1893, she developed breast cancer and though the tumour was removed, she suffered a recurrence in September 1894. She died the following year on 29 December 1894 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery.
Although Rossetti's popularity during her lifetime did not approach that of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, her standing remained strong after her death. In the early 20th century Rossetti's popularity faded in the wake of Modernism. Scholars began to explore Freudian themes in her work, such as religious and sexual repression, reaching for personal, biographical interpretations of her poetry. In the 1970s academics began to critique her work again, looking beyond the lyrical Romantic sweetness to her mastery of prosody and versification. Feminists held her as symbol of constrained female genius, placed as a leader of 19th century poets. Her work strongly influenced the work of such writers as Ford Madox Ford, Virginia Woolf, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Elizabeth Jennings, and Phillip Larkin. Critic Basil de Selincourt stated that she was "all but our greatest woman poet … incomparably our greatest craftswoman … probably in the first twelve of the masters of English verse".
Rossetti's Christmas poem "In the Bleak Midwinter" became widely known after her death when set as a Christmas carol first by Gustav Holst, and then by Harold Darke. Her poem "Love Came Down at Christmas" (1885) has also been widely arranged as a carol. Rossetti is honoured with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on April 27.
Christina Georgina Rossetti's Works:
Verses. London: private, 1847.
Goblin Market and Other Poems. London: Macmillan, 1862.
1876 Author's revised edition
The Prince's Progress and Other Poems. London: Macmillan, 1866.
Goblin Market, The Prince's Progress, and other poems. London: Maacmillan, 1879.
Sing-Song: a Nursery Rhyme Book (1872, 1893)
Speaking Likenesses. London: Macmillan, 1874.
A Pageant and Other Poems (1881)
Verses. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1893.,
New Poems London: Macmillan, 1896.
The Rossetti Birthday Book. London: private, 1896.
The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti. Edited by William Michael Rossetti. London: Macmillan, 1904.
The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti. Edited by Rebecca W Crump. 2 vols. to date. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979-85.
Commonplace and Other Stories. London: Ellis, 1870.
Maude: A Story for Girls. London: Bowden, 1897.
Called to Be Saints. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1881.
"Dante, an English Classic." Churchman's Shilling Magazine and Family Treasury 2 (1867): 200-205.
"Dante. The Poet Illustrated out of the Poem." The Century (February 1884): 566-73.
The Face of the Deep. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1893.
Seek and Find: A Double Series of Short Studies of the Benedicte. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1879.
Time Flies: A Reading Diary. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1885.
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Christina Georgina Rossetti Poems
Remember me when I am gone away, Gone far away into the silent land; When you can no more hold me by the hand, Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Come to me in the silence of the night; Come in the speaking silence of a dream; Come with soft rounded cheeks and eyes as bright As sunlight on a stream;
Where sunless rivers weep Their waves into the deep, She sleeps a charmed sleep: Awake her not.
My heart is like a singing bird Whose nest is in a water'd shoot; My heart is like an apple-tree Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
When I am dead, my dearest
When I am dead, my dearest, Sing no sad songs for me; Plant thou no roses at my head, Nor shady cypress tree:
From Sunset to Star Rise
Go from me, summer friends, and tarry not: I am no summer friend, but wintry cold, A silly sheep benighted from the fold, A sluggard with a thorn-choked garden plot.
A Daughter of Eve
A fool I was to sleep at noon, And wake when night is chilly Beneath the comfortless cold moon; A fool to pluck my rose too soon,
A Better Ressurection
I have no wit, no words, no tears; My heart within me like a stone Is numbed too much for hopes or fears. Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
A Study (A Soul)
She stands as pale as Parian statues stand; Like Cleopatra when she turned at bay, And felt her strength above the Roman sway, And felt the aspic writhing in her hand.
Who Has Seen the Wind?
Who has seen the wind? Neither I nor you. But when the leaves hang trembling, The wind is passing through.
When I am dead, my dearest, Sing no sad songs for me; Plant thou no roses at my head, Nor shady cypress tree:
They made the chamber sweet with flowers and leaves, And the bed sweet with flowers on which I lay; While my soul, love-bound, loitered on its way. I did not hear the birds about the eaves,
Sleeping at last
Sleeping at last, the trouble and tumult over, Sleeping at last, the struggle and horror past, Cold and white, out of sight of friend and of lover, Sleeping at last.
Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass, - The finger-points look through like rosy blooms: Your eyes smile peace. The pasture gleams and glooms 'Neath billowing skies that scatter and amass.
Let Me Go
When I come to the end of the road
And the sun has set for me
I want no rites in a gloom filled room
Why cry for a soul set free?
Miss me a little, but not for long
And not with your head bowed low
Remember the love that once we shared
Miss me, but let me go.
For this is a journey we all must take