The greatest poems by Christina Rossetti selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Christina Rossetti (1830-94) is primarily known for a handful of classic poems, but she wrote more than a handful of great ones. Below we’ve selected ten of Rossetti’s finest poems and written a short paragraph introducing each of them.
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray …
So begins this sonnet, written when Christina Rossetti was still a teenager. She requests that the addressee of the poem remember her after she has died. What gives the poem a twist is the concluding thought that it would be better for her loved one to forget her and be happy than to remember her if it makes her lover sad. It is this second part of the poem’s ‘argument’ that saves it from spilling over into mawkish sentimentality, and makes this one of Rossetti’s finest poems about love.
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 …
This poem might be considered the ‘song’ counterpart to the sonnet above: it contains essentially the same sentiment (similarly lacking sentimentality) as ‘Remember’. It remains a popular Rossetti poem, and stands up as an impressive poem in its own right.
‘Song’ (or ‘When I am dead, my dearest’, if you prefer) was written in 1848 when Christina Rossetti was still a teenager, but not published until 1862 when it appeared in her first volume of poetry, Goblin Market and Other Poems. The poem is a variation on the theme of John Donne’s ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, and provides a neat complement to another of Christina Rossetti’s early poems, the sonnet ‘Remember’, which she wrote a year after ‘When I am dead, my dearest’.
3. ‘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 …
Probably inspired by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was a talented painter as well as a poet, ‘In an Artist’s Studio’ is about the male artist’s desire to objectify and reinvent the female subject in his art.
Is the sonnet lamenting this reluctance to see the woman as she really is, or celebrating the artist’s ability to invent the woman as an ideal ‘dream’? Readers remain divided. Follow the link above to read the full poem (and our detailed analysis).
4. ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’.
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ …
Rossetti wrote the words to the Christmas carol ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’. It was written some time prior to 1872 when Scribner’s Monthly magazine requested a Christmas-themed poem. But amazingly, it was only published in 1904, ten years after Rossetti’s death. Shortly after this, in 1906, it became a musical piece, one of the most popular Christmas carols. The first musical accompaniment for Rossetti’s poem was the work of none other than Gustav Holst, the British composer most famous for the Planets suite.
5. ‘Shut Out’.
The door was shut. I looked between
Its iron bars; and saw it lie,
My garden, mine, beneath the sky,
Pied with all flowers bedewed and green:
From bough to bough the song-birds crossed,
From flower to flower the moths and bees;
With all its nests and stately trees
It had been mine, and it was lost …
So begins a poem about a paradise that has been lost. Rossetti’s speaker peers between the iron bars of a garden gate and sees a garden full of flowers, and laments that this garden had once belonged to her – but not any more. A spirit without a shadow guards the gate, barring her from entering. This poem verges on allegory, though its precise meaning remains elusive. We think it might best be viewed as a poem about wanting what we cannot have: as Marcel Proust observed, the true paradises are those we have lost. (Or as one anonymous sage once put it, ‘Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be’.)
6. ‘Good Friday’.
Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?
Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter, weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved …
This poem was published in Christina Rossetti’s 1866 collection The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems. The poem is about Rossetti’s struggle to feel close to Christ and the teachings of Christianity, and to weep for the sacrifice he made.
7. ‘A Birthday’.
My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me …
Love poetry is obviously common enough in English literature, but there are actually few truly great poems about being in love (and being happy). ‘A Birthday’ is a fine example of a successful poem which celebrates being in love using colourful and majestic imagery.
I took my heart in my hand
(O my love, O my love),
I said: Let me fall or stand,
Let me live or die,
But this once hear me speak—
(O my love, O my love)—
Yet a woman’s words are weak;
You should speak, not I …
This is not one of Christina Rossetti’s most famous poems, but it deserves to be better known. Its songlike quality shows up its kinship with many of Rossetti’s more celebrated poems, and its emotional power is as great as ‘A Birthday’ or ‘Remember’.
9. ‘Winter: My Secret’.
I tell my secret? No indeed, not I:
Perhaps some day, who knows?
But not today; it froze, and blows, and snows,
And you’re too curious: fie!
You want to hear it? well:
Only, my secret’s mine, and I won’t tell …
Rossetti originally gave ‘Winter: My Secret’ the rather less appealing title ‘Nonsense’. She renamed it with its more exciting title when it was published in Goblin Market and Other Poems in 1862. The new title immediately piques our interest. ‘Winter: My Secret’. But what secret? Our analysis of the poem, included in the link above, attempts to get to the bottom of the poem’s caginess.
10. Goblin Market.
Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
‘Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpeck’d cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
All ripe together
In summer weather,—
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy …’
Probably the most famous poem Rossetti wrote. It’s a long narrative poem about two sisters, Lizzie and Laura, and how Laura succumbs to temptation and tastes the fruit sold by the goblins of the poem’s title.
But what is Goblin Market about? The fruit in the poem which the goblins sell has been interpreted in various ways: critics have long seen the eroticised description of the exotic fruit as symbolic of (sexual) temptation, with Laura as the fallen women who succumbs to masculine wiles and is ruined as a result (though she is, of course, happily married at the end of the poem).
Some critics have drawn parallels between Laura’s addiction to the exotic fruit in the poem and the experience of drug addiction. In Victorian Britain, opium-addiction was a real social problem, opium being, like the fruits of Goblin Market, both sweet and bitter (i.e. having an up and a down side), and exotic as well (opium hailing from the Orient).
If this rundown of Rossetti’s best poems has you hankering to read more of her work, there’s plenty of it (much of it very good): we recommend the colossal Penguin edition of her work, Complete Poems (Penguin Classics). You can learn more about Rossetti’s life here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image (top): Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Wikimedia Commons. Image (bottom): Portrait of Christina Rossetti by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1866), public domain.