The Accomplished Pre-Raphaelite Poetess Christina Rossetti
“She is the finest woman-poet since Mrs. Browning, by a long way; and in artless art, if not in intellectual impulse, is greatly Mrs. Browning’s superior.” — William Sharp in The Atlantic Monthly (June 1895)
Christina Georgina Rossetti entered the world in 1830 and destined for a life of literary influence. As the daughter of an exiled Italian poet, Gabriele Rossetti and sister to a rising artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Christina had every advantage to succeed, while living at Charlotte Street in the brownstone rows of upper-class London.
Here she learned the foundations that would propel her on an unusual journey for a woman of her day. Not many females in Victorian England at that time had the opportunity to separate themselves from the confines of society's restrictions when it came to the proper expectations of a well-bred young woman where women were seen and not heard. However, Christina managed to walk the boundaries of societal acceptance and her questionable role overlooked given the fame of her artist brother.
Rossetti started her literary excellence at an early age. Before her parents had ever tutored her in the arts of writing she had already dictated her stories, showing her aptitude for literature. Influenced by the works of Keats and Dante Alighieri, Christina developed her own writing style that would, later on, set the tone in her work, placing great importance on poetry.
Young Lovers Spurned
Christina found love in her late teens. James Collinson, an artist and member of her brother Dante's Pre-Raphaelite movement was the first of several suitors to win over her hand. Engaged in 1850, the union did not last long due to his choice in a religious pursuit which did not align with Christina's revolutionary stance. Another suitor, Charles Cayley, a Linguist with whom she had a brief romance, but also ended the relationship on the grounds of his religious pursuit. Though not much has been documented about her romance with the artist John Brett, the relationship ended with her resolute refusal and most likely due to the fact that Christina wanted to concentrate on her future writing career.
Pre-Raphaelite Art Model
On occasion, Christina posed for her brother, Dante Gabriel in the early days of his artist profession. Along with their mother, Frances Polidori Rossetti, both women sat for one of his very first paintings, the grand depiction of The Girlhood of Mary Virgin where Christina took on the role of Mary, while her mother posed as St. Anne, the mother of Mary.
Another painting Oh, What's That in the Hollow, so Pale I Quake to Follow? by the accomplished artist, Edward Robert Hughes, a friend of William Holman Hunt who co-founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was inspired by Christina's poem "Amor Mundi".
Though Christina most likely enjoyed basking in the glow of her brother's famous works of art, she still harbored contrasting views about male artists and the female models who sat for their canvases as is evident in a poem she wrote about objectifying women titled, In an Artist’s Studio:
One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel — every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more or less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.
Critical Analysis of Rossetti's Literary Career
"Rossetti's work is unequaled for its objective expression of happiness denied and a certain unfamiliar, steely stoicism." ~ Phillip Larkin
Literary Career and Recognition
Rossetti's first real break in the literary world happened in 1862 when she entered her early thirties.s, which the critics praised her work and set the stage for a literary career as a female poet. Stuck in the shadows of her greatest poetic work, Rossetti found it hard to overcome the rave review success of Goblin Market and following, any other poems which she published did not measure up to her first work. As an alternative, she took another path, writing children's stories and Christian themed prose. Some of her recognized work in these genres included: Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872) and Called to be Saints (1876). Even though Rossetti switched the tone of her literary career, she did not completely stop writing poetry. In 1881, she compiled and published A Pageant and Other Poems, which gained notoriety after years focusing on the latter craft. Goblin Market and Other Poem
Examples of Published Works
Christina Rossetti's Poem: "Remember"
"Can anything be sadder than work left unfinished? Yes, work never begun." — Christina Rossetti
Rossetti's Final Days
Like her brother and father, Christina suffered from bouts of depression. It has been suggested by literary historians that the poet might have been a victim of incestuous relations with her father, which may have triggered her emotional inconsistency. Whether or not an unwanted liaison between daughter and father had ever occurred, the theorist's rumors have never been recorded or proven although much of her poetry hints at its possibility and leaves us questioning the reason as to why she never married. In later years, the poet also suffered from Graves Disease which eventually wore her down along with a reoccurring breast tumor which ultimately caused her death in 1893.
- Academy of American Poets: Christina Rossetti
- Clifford, David, and Roussillon, Laurence. Outsiders Looking In: The Rossettis Then and Now. London: Anthem, 2004.
- Poetry Foundation: Christina Rossetti
- Jones, Kathleen. Learning Not to be First: A Biography of Christina Rossetti. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
- Interesting Literature. A Short Analysis of Christina Rossetti’s ‘In an Artist’s Studio
© 2017 Ziyena Brazos