An introduction to Rossetti’s life and work
Christina Rossetti (1830-94) was one of the Victorian era’s greatest and most influential poets, along with Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Algernon Charles Swinburne. In this post we offer a very short biography of Christina Rossetti, taking in the most curious and interesting aspects of her life and work.
Rossetti was the younger sister (by two years) of the Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Christina Rossetti was born in London in 1830, and lived with her mother virtually all of her life. She never married. Next to a biography of her brother Dante Gabriel, the biography of Christina Rossetti can seem tame by comparison; but her work is curious and idiosyncratic and raises interesting questions about how much it reflects her own life and her own beliefs.
In terms of beliefs, Christina was High Church rather than Low, and was heavily influenced by the Oxford Movement of the 1840s. Many of her poems engage with the issue of religious belief, such as ‘Good Friday’ (a poem about honest religious doubt as much as faith) and ‘Twice’, about the importance of Christian forgiveness and redemption (the poem is spoken by a fallen woman, a theme that can also be seen in ‘Goblin Market’).
Christina Rossetti composed her first poem while still a very young girl; she dictated it to her mother. It ran simply: ‘Cecilia never went to school / Without her gladiator.’ It’s often claimed that Rossetti’s first volume of poems was Goblin Market and Other Poems, which appeared in 1862 when Rossetti was in her early thirties; this is only partly true. Christina Rossetti had in fact had a volume of her poems (titled simply Verses) privately printed in 1847, though it attracted little attention. Goblin Market and Other Poems was the first collection of her poetry to be published rather than printed, and it was the book that brought her to public attention. The title poem is a long narrative work which is often taken for a children’s poem because of its fairy-tale motifs and imagery; Rossetti, however, always denied that the poem was intended for children. Goblin Market and Other Poems also reveals what a remarkably precocious poet Rossetti was: several of the poems in the volume, such as ‘Remember’ and ‘When I am dead, my dearest’, were composed before she had turned twenty.
Rossetti’s influences were as diverse as the many poetic forms in which she wrote: sonnets, ballads, narrative poems, lyrics, even Christmas carols (‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ to name but the most famous). She was remarkably prolific: her Complete Poems (Penguin Classics) runs to well over 1,000 pages and is a treasure-trove for the poetry-lover. She took her influences from everyone from the King James Bible to the Metaphysical Poets to the Romantics, but there is something distinctive about her poetry. In her best work, you can tell you’re reading a Christina Rossetti poem.
Christina Rossetti died in 1894 from breast cancer, although for the last two decades of her life she had suffered from Graves’ Disease. She was buried in Highgate Cemetery where fellow Victorian writer George Eliot had earlier been laid to rest.
Rossetti herself went on to influence a range of later poets, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ford Madox Ford, and Elizabeth Jennings. Philip Larkin was an admirer, praising her ‘steely stoicism’. Her legacy is found in surprising places: not every carol-singer is aware that ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ is based on a poem by Rossetti (originally titled ‘A Christmas Carol’), while fewer J. K. Rowling fans are doubtless aware that the title of the first Robert Galbraith novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, is borrowed from Rossetti’s poem ‘A Dirge’.
We hope you’ve found this very short biography of Christina Rossetti useful – if so, you can learn more about her life here. For more biographies of famous poets, we recommend Michael Schmidt’s vast and informative The Lives Of The Poets.
Image: Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Wikimedia Commons.