About the poems of Christina Rossetti



‘Once upon a time Christina Rossetti was simple’, but that was long, long ago. She was born in 1830 into a hugely gifted family- her father was Professor of Italian at King's College London, her brothers- the artist  Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Michael were co-founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, her sister Maria Franchesca was an acclaimed biographer of Dante. It was an artistic and academic household and one to which a constant stream of eminent visitors came to call: Coventry Patmore, William Morris, Ford Madox Ford. It was perhaps in necessary isolation that Christina withdrew and 'shut the door to face the naked truth’.

She carved out of the drama of her soul poetry in which an intensity of feelings and emotions is captured with exquisite, painful precision. Her emotional power, however, is not for sentimentalists. ‘Rossetti's work’ said Larkin 'is unequalled for its objective expression of happiness denied and a certain unfamiliar, steely stoicism'. The spiritually wilful Rossetti turned away from human love. Twice. It is within that dialogue with self, in the battleground between body and soul that Rossetti, a girl of extreme temperament (she had a nervous breakdown when she was in her teenage years) found her poetic inspiration-the heart laid bare with a verbal scalpel. Her first love James Collinson was rather unreliable spiritually, a fatal flaw in Christina's eyes. He changed from Catholicism to Protestantism then back again-not a man for the long haul of the soul. The second, perhaps deeper love, Charles Bagot Cayley was untroubled by any belief at all. Virginia Woolf once commented that if she were bringing a case against God, Rossetti would be her first witness. God, in Rossetti’s eyes, required a fine fidelity. 'I love, as you would have me, God the most; Would not lose Him, but you, must one be lost./ This say I, having counted up the cost.' Sometimes indeed there is anger with God as in Dost Thou Not Care? which ends with Christ's reminder of His sacrifice. 'Did I not die for thee?/ Did I not live for thee?/ Leave Me tomorrow'. A line which allows for no escape.

Rossetti was first published aged 17 and from then on she published hundreds of poems - the majority religious - including 'A Christmas Carol ' (we know it as ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’). However the poem which immediately made her name and guarantees her position in literary history is 'Goblin Market', the tale of two sisters Lizzie and Laura, and their almost fatal encounter with the goblin men - published in 1862.  It is one of the most bewildering poems in the language. Almost 150 years after publication it stuns us still. Yet at the time of publication it was regarded as a fairy tale and is believed to have inspired another surrealist masterpiece Alice's Adventures Underground. Arthur Rackham's enchanting illustrations of the 1933 edition of Goblin Market would seem to confirm that interpretation. However, this Miltonian tale of temptation and triumph over evil with its insistent broken rhythms - almost as compelling as the seductive goblins' fruits, with their implied images of the Eucharist – and, impossible to ignore, luscious sexual innuendo (much exploited by Kinuko Craft's illustrations for - surprisingly Playboy) lends itself to a myriad of interpretations. Though she would live for another thirty-two years after its publication Christina Rossetti declined to enlighten us further. Why should she? She knew she'd written a masterpiece -according to Tom Paulin one of the triumphs of Victorian literature and according to Edith Sitwell the most perfect poem written by a woman in the English language.


Books by Josephine Hart     The Josephine Hart Poetry Hour

Josephine Hart's books, Catching Life by the Throat and Words That Burn are available to buy in the British Library shop.