Christina Georgina Rossetti (December 5, 1830 – December 29, 1894) 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, which tells of two sisters tempted by goblin men to buy strange fruit.
Rossetti was born in London and educated at home by her mother. Her siblings were the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Michael Rossetti, and Maria Francesca Rossetti. Their father, Gabriele Rossetti, was an Italian poet and a political asylum seeker from Naples; their mother, Frances Polidori, was the sister of Lord Byron’s friend and physician, John William Polidori. In the 1840s her family was stricken with severe financial difficulties due to the deterioration of her father’s physical and mental health. When she was 14, Rossetti suffered a nervous breakdown and left school.
Her breakdown was followed by bouts of depression and related illness. During this period she, her mother, and her sister became seriously interested in the Anglo-Catholic movement that was part of the Church of England. This religious devotion played a major role in Rossetti’s personal life: in her late teens she became engaged to the painter James Collinson but this ended because he reverted to Catholicism; later she became involved with the linguist Charles Cayley but did not marry him, also for religious reasons. She was a volunteer worker from 1859 to 1870 at the St Mary Magdalene “house of charity” in Highgate, a refuge for former prostitutes – “fallen women”.
Illustration for the cover of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862), by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Rossetti began writing at age 7 but she was 31 before her first work was published — Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862). The collection garnered much critical praise and, according to Jan Marsh, “Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s death two months later led to Rossetti being hailed as her natural successor as ‘female laureate’.” The title poem from this book is Rossetti’s best known work and, although at first glance it may seem merely to be a nursery rhyme about two sisters’ misadventures with goblins, the poem is multi-layered, challenging, and complex. 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. Some readers have noted its likeness to Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” given both poems’ religious themes of temptation, sin and redemption by vicarious suffering. Her Christmas poem “In the Bleak Midwinter” became widely known after her death when set as a Christmas carol by Gustav Holst as well as by other composers.
Rossetti continued to write and publish for the rest of her life although she focused primarily on devotional writing and children’s poetry. She maintained a large circle of friends and for ten years volunteered at a home for prostitutes. She was ambivalent about women’s suffrage but many scholars have identified feminist themes in her poetry. Furthermore, as Marsh notes, “she was opposed to war, slavery (in the American South), cruelty to animals (in the prevalent practice of animal experimentation), the exploitation of girls in under-age prostitution and all forms of military aggression.”
Portrait of Christina Rossetti, by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
In the later decades of her life, Rossetti suffered from Graves Disease. In 1893 she developed cancer, and died the following year December 29, 1894; she is buried in Highgate Cemetery. In the early 20th century Rossetti’s popularity faded as many respected Victorian writers’ reputations suffered from Modernism’s backlash. Rossetti remained largely unnoticed and unread until the 1970s when feminist scholars began to recover and comment on her work. In the last few decades Rossetti’s writing has been rediscovered and she has regained admittance into the Victorian literary canon.
In popular culture
The sonnet “Remember” features prominently in the 1955 film noir Kiss Me Deadly.
An extract from “Goblin Market” is also quoted on the British television series Doctor Who in the episode “Midnight”.
A line from one of her poems, “Beyond the sea of death…” was used as the title of an episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Her works were also referred to in the same episode of the TV drama.
The following Rossetti poems are narrated by Jonathan Frid on the Dark Shadows TV soundtrack, originally released on June 27, 1966. It is featured on the track titled, “Epitaph”.
“O Earth, lie heavily upon her eyes; Seal her sweet eyes weary of watching, Earth; Lie close around her; leave no room for mirth With its harsh laughter, nor for sound of sighs. She hath no questions, she hath no replies, Hush’d in and curtain’d with a bless’d dearth Of all that irk’d her from the hour of birth; With stillness that is almost Paradise. Darkness more clear than noonday holdeth her, Silence more musical than any song; Even her very heart has ceased to stir: Until the morning of Eternity Her rest shall not begin nor end, but be; And when she wakes she will not think it long.”
“When I am dead my dearest, sing no sad song for me, Plant thou no roses at my head, nor shady cypress tree. See the green grass above me with showers and dewdrops wet, And if thou wilt, remember, and if thou wilt, forget. I shall not see the shadows, I shall not feel the rain, I shall not hear the nightingale sing on as if in pain. And dreaming throughout the twilight that doth not rise nor set, Hap’ly will remember, and hap’ly will forget”.
Clifford, David and Roussillon, Laurence. Outsiders Looking In: The Rossettis Then and Now. London: Anthem, 2004.
Marsh, Jan. Introduction. Poems and Prose. By Christina Rossetti. London: Everyman, 1994. xvii – xxxiii.
Marsh, Jan. Christina Rossetti: A Writer’s Life, New York: Viking, 1994.
Jones, Kathleen. “Learning Not to be First” a biography of Christina Rossetti, Oxford University Press, 1991.
Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862)
The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems (1866)
Sing-Song: a Nursery Rhyme Book (1872, 1893)
In the Bleak Midwinter (1872)
A Pageant and Other Poems (1881)
New Poems (1895)