IntroductionChristina Rossetti (1830-1894) and her poetry havebecome a staple for female poets in the Victorian period. Modern critic, AntonyHarrison has remarked that her work has a feminist agenda to some degree and bydoing so has challenged nineteenth century critics, whom has primarily focusedon examinations of Rossetti on the poet’s reticence and her renunciation ofthis world in favour of the afterlife. The empowering elements of Rossetti’swork have undeniably been replicated throughout the generations, and theincreasingly prominent concept of feminism has become more significant inmodern literature and poetry. Since the 1970s, feminist scholars have notedthat much of Rossetti’s work contains subtle critiques of nineteenth centurysociety’s treatment of women. Although it has been recognised that Rossetti wasno radical feminist- she even rejected the notion of female suffrage. Despitethis, Rosetti was known to explore complex relationships between women, oftenfocusing on the security and benefits of a strong sisterhood, the restrictionsimposed upon women, the difficulties facing a female writer and genderideology.
Some critics also argue that her religious verse offers new readingsof the Christian scriptures with a uniquely feminist understanding and that herwork in general offers a critique of the treatment of women in her age despitethe fact she did not overtly challenge the social order. Rossetti is best known for her ballads and her mysticreligious lyrics. Her poetry is marked by symbolism and intense feeling. Rossetti’sbest-known work, Goblin Market and Other Poems, was published in 1862. Thecollection established Rossetti as a significant voice in Victorian poetry. ThePrince’s Progress and Other Poems, appeared in 1866 followed by Sing-Song, acollection of verse for children, in 1872 (with illustrations by ArthurHughes). By the 1880s, recurrent bouts of Graves’ disease, a thyroid disorder,made Rossetti an invalid, and ended her attempts to work as a governess.
Whilethe illness restricted her social life, she continued to write poems. Among herlater works are A Pageant and Other Poems (1881), and The Face of the Deep(1892). Rossetti also wrote religious prose works, such as Seek and Find(1879), Called to Be Saints (1881) and The Face of the Deep (1892). In 1891,Rossetti developed cancer, of which she died in London on December 29, 1894.Rossetti’s brother, William Michael, edited her collected works in 1904, butthe Complete Poems were not published before 1979.
Christina Rossetti isincreasingly being reconsidered a major Victorian poet. She has been comparedto Emily Dickinson but the similarity is more in the choice of spiritual topicsthan in poetic approach, Rossetti’s poetry being one of intense feelings, hertechnique refined within the forms established in her time. Her work isgenerally focused on spiritual love and subtle criticism, which is establishedthrough symbolism and allegories. Soon after the publication of Goblin Market, and OtherPoems, the British Quarterly Review, a highly respected literary journal of theday, commented that all the poems were “marked by beauty and tenderness. Theyare frequently quaint, and sometimes a little capricious.
” Christina Rossettiwas praised in her time for the clarity and sweetness of her diction, for herrealistic imagery, and for the purity of her faith. She was widely read in thenineteenth century but not often imitated. The latter is true perhaps becauseshe did not introduce innovative techniques or subject matter. She is not readwidely today, either, and is usually treated as a minor poet of the Victorianperiod, being eclipsed by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his fellowPre-Raphaelite writers.
Perhaps the simplicity of Christina Rossetti’s faithseems remote and unrealistic to many contemporary readers, but this fact shouldnot diminish her artistic contributions. Andrew Lang, in The CosmopolitanMagazine, June, 1895, left this judgment: “For the quality of conscious art andfor music and colour of words in regular composition, Miss Rossetti isunmatched.”In terms of contemporaries, Christina Rossetti, AliceMeynell, Katherine Tynan and Elizabeth Barrett Browning dedicated poems to oneanother in a uniquely female dialogue. Many women wrote poetry despite the manyobstacles, and anthologies and journals of women’s poetry encouraged adistinctive conversation between female poets.
Isobel Armstrong also claimswomen used ‘expressive’ language to represent their emotions and experiences,and the representational symbols on the page were paradoxically both a means ofexpression and part of the forces of repression. She proposes that poetryinvolves the ‘movement outwards, the breaking of barriers’. It is alsoappropriate to say that Rossetti and many of her contemporaries were inspiredby the concept of floriography, which is the use of vivid flower imagery inorder to covey powerful messages through symbolism, for example the mostcommonly interpreted flower is perhaps the Rose, which represents love.Furthermore, Rossetti’s work was largely influenced byher personal life, which often seeped into her writing. Caught up in theTractarian or Oxford Movement when it reached London in the 1840s, theRossetti’s shifted from an Evangelical to an Anglo-Catholic orientation, andthis outlook influenced virtually all of Christina Rossetti’s poetry. She wasalso influenced by the poetics of the Oxford Movement, as is documented in theannotations and illustrations she added to her copy of John Keble’s TheChristian Year (1827) and in her reading of poetry by Isaac Williams andJohn Henry Newman.
For more than twenty years, beginning in 1843, she worshipedat Christ Church, Albany Street, where services were influenced by theinnovations emanating from Oxford. The Reverend William Dodsworth, the priestthere until his conversion to Catholicism in 1850, assumed a leading role asthe Oxford Movement spread to London. In addition to coming under the religiousinfluence of prominent Tractarians such as Dodsworth, W.
J. E. Bennett, HenryW. Burrows, and E. B. Pusey, Rossetti had close personal ties with Burrows andRichard Frederick Littledale, a High Church theologian who became her spiritualadviser.
The importance of Rossetti’s faith for her life and art can hardly beoverstated. More than half of her poetic output is devotional, and the works ofher later years in both poetry and prose are almost exclusively so. Theinconstancy of human love, the vanity of earthly pleasures, renunciation,individual unworthiness, and the perfection of divine love are recurring themesin her poetry.