Christina Rossetti was the sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, founder and one of the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and a poet in her own right. She was also a model for several of her brother’s paintings, including being the inspiration for the Virgin Mary. The most famous of her poems is The Goblin Market; one of the best paeans to Sisterhood in my own opinion.
“For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.”
The conclusion to The Goblin Market.
Even though it is fairly obvious that this poem was aimed at adults, it has always been considered a poem for children – probably because of the fantasy element. The society of Victorian era relegated fairies and suchlike to the children’s literary genre; a perfect example of this is The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley, intended as a tract against child labour, as well as a serious critique of the negative attitudes of many scientists of the day to new theories and innovative research. Christina Rossetti was classified as a children’s poet, even though many of her poems had serious topics, like death, animal cruelty, sin and redemption.
When I am dead, my dearest
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
Though Rossetti received three proposals (that we know of), she never married; one can’t help but wonder at the strength of resolve she had in avoiding matrimony in an era where marriage was considered a woman’s only respectable career option. She was never officially recognised as a suffragette, but Rossetti was a volunteer worker from 1859 to 1870 at the St. Mary Magdalene “house of charity” in Highgate, and she opposed the use of young women as prostitutes. The underlying discourse of many of her poems are feminist in theme. She published poems in the feminist periodicals The English Woman’s Journal and Victoria Magazine and in various anthologies. Like all the women on the outskirts of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, she lived by her own rules, though Christina Rossetti was never considered a rebel. A feminist by any other name is still a feminist.
Christina Rossetti was a very staunch Catholic woman to the point she even has her own feast day in the Catholic calendar. She wrote devotional poetry, as well as her poems that she wrote with the encouragement of Dante. Her obvious religious fervour balanced against her relationship to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and – after all – Dante was her brother and the Victorians valued familial bonds, so that she considered fairly respectable all her life. Her religious views flavoured the fantasy in her poetry, as she often dwelled on sin and redemption.
Christina Rossetti was considered the ‘successor’ to Elizabeth Barret Browning, and she is still studied as a Literary poet. However, her brother’s fame has always been greater than her own. It is the same for Camille Claude, whose great talent as a sculpture was overshadowed by her brother’s reputation as a poet. Dorothy Wordsworth didn’t even try to compete with her brother William, though he read her journal for inspiration. In the Victorian era, a female artist was always considered a secondary talent. Even the poet Shelly was rather scornful of Mary Shelley’s writing efforts, though he loved his wife dearly. Christina should not be dismissed as a minor Victorian poet; if Christina had been a Christian, would the poetry still be considered more suitable for children?
Christina Rossetti herself was of two minds about her poetry. At different times she claimed it was written specifically for children, and at other times she considered it unsuitable for children to read. I think her audience read into her poetry what they want to see, which is the real quality that delineates a true poetic vision. I’m gratified to see that her vision still has relevance in the 21st century.