Christina Georgina Rossetti

The English poet Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894) wrote poems of love, fantasy, and nature, verses for children, and devotional poetry and prose.

Christina Rossetti was born on Dec. 5, 1830, in London, the youngest of the four remarkable Rossetti children. Educated entirely at home, she spoke English and Italian with ease and read French, Latin, and German. Her first verses were written to her mother on April 27, 1842. Her first published poems were the seven she contributed in 1850 to the Pre-Raphaelite magazine, the Germ, under the pseudonym Ellen Alleyne.

When her father died in 1854, Christina became the close companion of her mother and followed her older sister's example in becoming a devout Anglican. Though mild and virtuous, she was frequently anxious about her self-presumed sinfulness. She is said to have pasted strips of paper over the more blasphemous passages in Swinburne's poetry. Yet she remained devoted to her brother, Dante Gabriel, whose life was far from a model of conventional virtue. At 18 she fell in love with James Collinson, a minor Pre-Raphaelite painter, but broke off her engagement to him 2 years later, when he became a Roman Catholic. In 1862 she fell deeply in love with Charles Bagot Cayley. But she again refused to marry, this time because Cayley had no firm religious faith. These two broken love affairs are reflected in many of her poems, especially the sonnet sequence Monna Innominata. In other poems a melancholy regret for lost love is mixed with a disturbing obsession with death. Because she suffered long and frequent periods of poor health, Rossetti came to regard life as physically and emotionally painful and to look forward to death both as a release and as the possible moment of joyful union with God and with those she had loved and lost.

Rossetti's three major volumes of poetry were Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862), The Prince's Progress and Other Poems (1866), and A Pageant and Other Poems (1881). She also published Commonplace (1870), a book of short stories; Sing-song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872), beautifully illustrated by Arthur Hughes and a favorite of Victorian children; and Speaking Likenesses (1874), a book of tales for children. But her poetry alone has secured her fame. Her poems, like those of the later Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, reveal a dual, self-contradictory sensibility. They express a sensuous attraction to physical beauty fused with a mystical and saintly religious faith. They are sometimes highly sentimental in tone yet scrupulously austere in diction and form. And throughout many of them one may find a quiet sense of humor that controls the sentimentality and keeps contradictions in balance. "Goblin Market" is certainly her finest poem and her most disturbing in its presentation of the conflict between sisterly love and destructive passion.

From 1871 through 1873 Rossetti was stricken by Graves' disease, which ruined her beauty and brought her close to death. When she recovered, she turned almost exclusively to religious writing, publishing a number of devotional books: Annus Domini (1874), Seek and Find (1879), Called to Be Saints: The Minor Festivals (1881), Letter and Spirit (1882), Time Flies: A Reading Diary (1885), The Face of the Deep: A Commentary on the Revelation (1892), and Verses (1893). In 1891 she began to suffer from cancer and died, after a long and painful illness, on Dec. 29, 1894, in London.


Further Reading on Christina Georgina Rossetti

A wealth of biographical detail is in The Family Letters of Christina Georgina Rossetti, edited by her brother William M. Rossetti (1908; repr. 1968); Marya Zaturenska, Christina Rossetti: A Portrait with Background (1949); and The Rossetti-Macmillan Letters, edited by Lona M. Packer (1963). The best biography is Lona Packer, Christina Rossetti (1963). An interesting study of her poetry is Thomas B. Swann, Wonder and Whimsy: The Fantastic World of Christina Rossetti (1960).

Additional Biography Sources

Battiscombe, Georgina. Christina Rossetti, a divided life, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981.

Birkhead, Edith. Christina Rossetti & her poetry, Philadelphia: R.West, 1977.

Jones, Kathleen. Learning not to be first: the life of Christina Rossetti, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

Marsh, Jan. Christina Rossetti: a life, New York: Viking, 1995.

Proctor, Ellen A. A brief of memoir of Christina G. Rossetti, Philadelphia: R. West, 1978.

Sandars, Mary Frances. The life of Christina Rossetti, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Sawtell, Margaret. Christina Rossetti: her life and religion, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.

Shove, Fredegond. Christina Rossetti: a study, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1977.