Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) and her poetry have
become a staple for female poets in the Victorian period. Modern critic, Antony
Harrison has remarked that her work has a feminist agenda to some degree and by
doing so has challenged nineteenth century critics, whom has primarily focused
on examinations of Rossetti on the poet’s reticence and her renunciation of
this world in favour of the afterlife. The empowering elements of Rossetti’s
work have undeniably been replicated throughout the generations, and the
increasingly prominent concept of feminism has become more significant in
modern literature and poetry. Since the 1970s, feminist scholars have noted
that much of Rossetti’s work contains subtle critiques of nineteenth century
society’s treatment of women. Although it has been recognised that Rossetti was
no radical feminist- she even rejected the notion of female suffrage. Despite
this, Rosetti was known to explore complex relationships between women, often
focusing on the security and benefits of a strong sisterhood, the restrictions
imposed upon women, the difficulties facing a female writer and gender
ideology. Some critics also argue that her religious verse offers new readings
of the Christian scriptures with a uniquely feminist understanding and that her
work in general offers a critique of the treatment of women in her age despite
the fact she did not overtly challenge the social order.

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Rossetti is best known for her ballads and her mystic
religious lyrics. Her poetry is marked by symbolism and intense feeling. Rossetti’s
best-known work, Goblin Market and Other Poems, was published in 1862. The
collection established Rossetti as a significant voice in Victorian poetry. The
Prince’s Progress and Other Poems, appeared in 1866 followed by Sing-Song, a
collection of verse for children, in 1872 (with illustrations by Arthur
Hughes). By the 1880s, recurrent bouts of Graves’ disease, a thyroid disorder,
made Rossetti an invalid, and ended her attempts to work as a governess. While
the illness restricted her social life, she continued to write poems. Among her
later 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, but
the Complete Poems were not published before 1979. Christina Rossetti is
increasingly being reconsidered a major Victorian poet. She has been compared
to Emily Dickinson but the similarity is more in the choice of spiritual topics
than in poetic approach, Rossetti’s poetry being one of intense feelings, her
technique refined within the forms established in her time. Her work is
generally focused on spiritual love and subtle criticism, which is established
through symbolism and allegories.

Soon after the publication of Goblin Market, and Other
Poems, the British Quarterly Review, a highly respected literary journal of the
day, commented that all the poems were “marked by beauty and tenderness. They
are frequently quaint, and sometimes a little capricious.” Christina Rossetti
was praised in her time for the clarity and sweetness of her diction, for her
realistic imagery, and for the purity of her faith. She was widely read in the
nineteenth century but not often imitated. The latter is true perhaps because
she did not introduce innovative techniques or subject matter. She is not read
widely today, either, and is usually treated as a minor poet of the Victorian
period, being eclipsed by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his fellow
Pre-Raphaelite writers. Perhaps the simplicity of Christina Rossetti’s faith
seems remote and unrealistic to many contemporary readers, but this fact should
not diminish her artistic contributions. Andrew Lang, in The Cosmopolitan
Magazine, June, 1895, left this judgment: “For the quality of conscious art and
for music and colour of words in regular composition, Miss Rossetti is

In terms of contemporaries, Christina Rossetti, Alice
Meynell, Katherine Tynan and Elizabeth Barrett Browning dedicated poems to one
another in a uniquely female dialogue. Many women wrote poetry despite the many
obstacles, and anthologies and journals of women’s poetry encouraged a
distinctive conversation between female poets. Isobel Armstrong also claims
women used ‘expressive’ language to represent their emotions and experiences,
and the representational symbols on the page were paradoxically both a means of
expression and part of the forces of repression. She proposes that poetry
involves the ‘movement outwards, the breaking of barriers’. It is also
appropriate to say that Rossetti and many of her contemporaries were inspired
by the concept of floriography, which is the use of vivid flower imagery in
order to covey powerful messages through symbolism, for example the most
commonly interpreted flower is perhaps the Rose, which represents love.

Furthermore, Rossetti’s work was largely influenced by
her personal life, which often seeped into her writing. Caught up in the
Tractarian or Oxford Movement when it reached London in the 1840s, the
Rossetti’s shifted from an Evangelical to an Anglo-Catholic orientation, and
this outlook influenced virtually all of Christina Rossetti’s poetry. She was
also influenced by the poetics of the Oxford Movement, as is documented in the
annotations and illustrations she added to her copy of John Keble’s The
Christian Year (1827) and in her reading of poetry by Isaac Williams and
John Henry Newman. For more than twenty years, beginning in 1843, she worshiped
at Christ Church, Albany Street, where services were influenced by the
innovations emanating from Oxford. The Reverend William Dodsworth, the priest
there until his conversion to Catholicism in 1850, assumed a leading role as
the Oxford Movement spread to London. In addition to coming under the religious
influence of prominent Tractarians such as Dodsworth, W. J. E. Bennett, Henry
W. Burrows, and E. B. Pusey, Rossetti had close personal ties with Burrows and
Richard Frederick Littledale, a High Church theologian who became her spiritual
adviser. The importance of Rossetti’s faith for her life and art can hardly be
overstated. More than half of her poetic output is devotional, and the works of
her later years in both poetry and prose are almost exclusively so. The
inconstancy of human love, the vanity of earthly pleasures, renunciation,
individual unworthiness, and the perfection of divine love are recurring themes
in her poetry.