Christina Rossetti’s reputation as a remarkably direct and compelling lyric poet has grown over the years; ‘Goblin Market’, ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ and ‘Remember’ are now among the best-loved English poems.
Born on 5 December 1830 into a lively artistic and literary Bloomsbury family, she was the youngest child of the Italian scholar Gabriel Rossetti, and sister to the poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the writers William and Maria Rossetti. Their mother was Frances Polidori, sister of John Polidori, who was Lord Byron’s friend and physician. Love of all things Italian ruled the household.
Christina was given a stimulating education at home, but when her father’s health failed early in the 1840s, her mother turned to teaching outside the home to earn money. Maria became a governess, William a civil servant and Gabriel went to art school. In 1845, Christina suffered a nervous collapse, which had a lasting effect on her character. Around this time she, her mother and her sister all became deeply interested in Anglo-Catholicism.
She learnt to write poetry by imitation, experimenting with different verse forms (privately printed as 'Verses' in 1847). Her first published poems appeared in The Athenaeum in 1848; she modelled for her brother Dante Gabriel’s ‘Girlhood of Mary Virgin’, and later for other paintings. She explored this experience in her poem ‘In an Artist’s Studio’ (composed in 1856). Although much admired, and painted, by Dante Gabriel’s friends in the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, she refused marriage, breaking off an engagement and turning down two other suitors. Conflict between the sacred and the secular is a recurring theme in her work.
Goblin Market and Other Poems was published to critical acclaim in 1862, and Christina was hailed as a successor to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Other collections followed, including Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872); Speaking Likenesses (1874), a distinctly strange collection of tales ‘in the Alice style’; and the devotional work Seek and Find (1879). She died of cancer in 1894. Her brother William edited a near-complete edition of her poems, published as Poetical Works in 1904.