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Christina (Georgina) Rossetti (1830-1894) - Pseydonym Ellen Alleyne

 

One of the most important of English woman poets, who was the sister of the painter-poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and a member of the Pre-Raphaelite art movement. 'A Birthday,' 'When I Am Dead,' and 'Up-Hill' are probably Rossetti's best-known single works. After a serious illness in 1874, she rarely received visitors or went outside her home. Her favorite themes were unhappy love, death, and premature resignation. Especially her later verse dealt with somber religious feelings.

Does the road wind uphill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.

(in 'Up-Hill', 1861)

Christina Rossetti was born in London, one of four children of Italian parents. Her father was the poet Gabriele Rossetti (1783-1854), professor of Italian at King's College from 1831. He resigned in 1845 because of blindness. All the four children in the family became writers, Dante Gabriel also gained fame as a painter. Christina was educated at home by her mother, Frances Polidori, a former governess, an Anglican of devout evangelical bent. She shared her parents' interest in poetry and was portrayed in the paintings and drawings of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Christina was the model for his brother's oil painting The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849), which was the first picture to be signed P.R.B. Jan Marsh has proposed in her biography Christina Rossetti: A Writer's Life (1995) that Christina's secret was that she was sexually abused by her father, but "perhaps like many abuse victims she banished the knowledge from conscious memory." True or not, this kind of speculative claims became highly popular in biographies in the 1990s. Diane D'Amico has argued in Christina Rossetti: Faith, Gender and Time (1999) that "Rossetti was a complex woman who certainly had more than one secret."

Some of the symptoms of Rossetti's disorder were perhaps self-inflicted. Germaine Greer has suggested that Rossetti's frustrated sexuality and feelings of guilt may have resulted from her longing for closeness with her brother Gabriel (Slip-Shod Sibyls: Recognition, Rejection and the Woman Poet, 1995, pp. 369-389). At the age of fifteen, she became an invalid. Her disease was diagnosed as angina pectoris. However, she was far stronger than she believed herself to be and outlived all her family, except her brother William and his family. 

Rossetti's first verses were written in 1842 and printed in the private press of her grandfather. In 1850, under the pseudonym Ellen Alleyne, she contributed seven poems to the short-lived Pre-Raphaelite journal The Germ, founded by her brother William Michael and his friends. When the family was in a financial trouble, she helped her mother to keep a school at Frome, Somerset. The school was not a success, and they returned in 1854 to London. Except for two brief visits abroad, she lived with her mother all her life.

Rossetti's deeply religious temperament left its marks on her writing. She was a devout High Anglican, much influenced by the Tractarian, or Oxford, Movement. Rossetti broke engagement to the artist James Collison, an original member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, when he joined the Roman Catholic church. She also rejected Charles Bagot Cayley, the translator of Dante's Commedia, for religious reasons; he was an agnostic, and moreover, his "costume was always shabby and out of date", as her brother William Michael noted. Cayley remained her long-suffering admirer.

Rossetti's best-known collection, Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862), established her fame as a significant voice in Victorian poetry. The title poem is a cryptic fairy-tale and tells the story of two sisters, Lizzie and Laura, who are tempted the eat the fruit of the goblin men. After eating the fruit, Laura cannot see the goblins. Lizzie, whose refusal have angered the goblins, is attacked by them, and she saves her sister in an act of sacrifice. Laura, longing to taste again the fruit, licks the juices with which Lizzie is covered. "For there is no friend like a sister / In calm or stormy weather." The collection was dedicated to her sister Maria Francesca, who undertook the discipline of an Anglican sisterhood.   

By the 1880s, recurrent bouts of Graves' disease, a thyroid disorder, had made Rossetti an invalid, and ended her attempts to work as a governess. Rossetti's illness restricted her social life, but she continued to write sonnets and ballads. Especially she was interested the apocalyptic books, and such religious writers as Augustine and Thomas à Kempis. She also admired George Herbert and John Donne. Among her later works are A Pageant and Other Poems (1881), and The Face of the Deep (1892). She was considered a possible successor to Alfred Tennyson as poet laureate. To accept the challenge, she wrote a royal elegy. However, Alfred Austin was appointed poet laureate in 1896. Rossetti developed a fatal cancer in 1891, and died in London on December 29, 1894.

In 'After Death' (1849), the poet-speaker lays on a bed, with a shroud on her face, observing the surroundings before the burial. "He did not love me living; but once dead / He pitied me; and very sweet it is / To know he still is warm tho' I am cold." The theme of death appears next year also in her brother's poem 'My Sister's Sleep' (1850), in which death visits a family on a Christmas Eve.

The title work of The Prince's Progress, and Other Poems (1866) drew, in places, on the imagery of Browning's 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came' (1855) and Edward Bulwer Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), which Rossetti had read in her youth. "A land of neither life nor death, / Where no man buildeth or fashioneth, / Where none draws living or dying breath; / No man cometh or goeth there, / No man doeth, seeketh, saith, / In the stagnant air." Some of the poems in Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872), such as 'Who Has Seen the Wind', are still popular. Rossetti also wrote religious prose works, such as Seek and Find (1879), Called to Be Saints (1881) and The Face of the Deep.

William Michael Rossetti edited her complete works in 1904. He once said that "Christina's habits of composing were eminently of the spontaneous kind. I question her having ever once deliberated with herself whether or not she would write something or other, and then, after thinking out a subject, having proceeded to treat it in regular spells of work. Instead of this, something impelled her feelings, or "came into her head," and her hand obeyed the dictation. I suppose she scribbled lines off rapidly enough, and afterwards took whatever amount of pains she deemed requisite for keeping them in right form and expression." Rossetti's work has suffered from reductive interpretations, but she is increasingly being reconsidered as a major Victorian poet. Typical for her poems was songlike use words and short, irregularly rhymed lines.

A birthday
My heart is like a singing bird
Whose heart is in a watered 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.
Raise me dais of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.
For further information: Christina Rossetti, a Biographical and Critical Study by MacKenzie Bell (1930); Christina Georgina Rossetti by Eleanor Thomas (1931); Christina Rossetti by Marya Zaturenska (1970); Christina Rossetti by Dorothy M. Stuart (1971); Christina Rossetti by M. Bell (1971); Christina Rossetti and Her Poetry by Edith Birkhead (1974); Four Rossettis by S. Weintraub (1977); The Bible and the Poetry of Christina Rossetti by Nilda Jimenez (1979); A Divided Life by G. Battiscombe (1981); Christina Rossetti: Criticsal Perspectives, 1862-1982 by Edna Charles (1985); Christina Rossetti: The Poetry of Endurance by Dolores Rosenblum (1987); The Achievement of Christina Rossetti, ed. D.A. Kent (1989); Christina Rossetti and the Poetry of Discovery by Katherine J. Mayberry (1989); Christina Rossetti: A Writer's Life by Jan Marsh (1995); Slip-Shod Sibyls: Recognition, Rejection and the Woman Poet by Germaine Greer (1995); Christina Rossetti by Sharon Smulders (1996); The Culture of Christina Rossetti: Female Poetics and Victorian Contexts, ed.  Mary Arseneau (1999); Christina Rossetti: Faith, Gender, and Time by Diane D'Amico (1999); Women's Poetry and Religion in Victorian England by Cynthia Scheinberg (2002); Christina Rossetti's Feminist Theology by Lynda Palazzo (2002) - In Finnish: Suomeksi Rossettilta on julkaistu runoja teoksessa Tuhat laulujen vuotta, toim. Aale Tynni (1976). See also: William Morris

Selected works:

  • Verses by Christina G. Rossetti, Dedicated to Her Mother, 1847  (privately printed at G. Polidori’s,)
  • Goblin Market and Other Poems, 1862
  • The Prince's Progress and Other Poems, 1866 (with two designs by D. G. Rossetti)
  • Commonplace and Other Stories, 1870
  • Sing-Song: a Nursery Rhyme Book, 1872 (illustrated by Arthur Hughes)
  • Speaking Likenesses, 1874
  • Seek and Find: A Double Series of Short Studies of the Benedicite, 1879
  • A Pageant and Other Poems, 1881
  • Called to Be Saints, 1881
  • A Strange Journey, 1882
  • Time Flies: A Reading Diary, 1885
  • The Face of the Deep, 1892
  • Verses by Christina G. Rossetti, 1893 (reprinted from Called to Be Saints, Time Flies", The Face of the Deep)
  • New Poems, 1896
  • Maude: A Story for Girls, 1897 (with an introduction by William Michael Rossetti)
  • The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti, 1904 (edited by  William Michael Rossetti)
  • Poems for Children, 1907 (selected and arranged by Melvin Hix)
  • The Family Letters of Christina Georgina Rossetti: With Some Supplementary Letters and Appendices, 1908 (edited by William Michael Rossetti)
  • Poems by Christina Rossetti, 1910  (illustrated by Florence Harrison)
  • Selected Poems of Christina G Rossetti, 1913 (ed. with introduction and notes by Charles Bell Burke)
  • Poems, 1956 (selected by Kathleen Jarvis)
  • Selected Poems of Christina Rossetti, 1970 (edited by Marya Zaturenska)
  • The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti, 1979 (3 vols., edited by R. W. Crump)
  • Selected Poems, 1984 (edited by C.H. Sisson)
  • Selected Prose of Christina Rossetti, 1998 (edited by David A. Kent and P.G. Stanwood)
  • The Letters of Christina Rossetti, 1997-2004 (4 vols., ed. Anthony H. Harrison)  
  • Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems, 2001 (notes and introduction by Betty S. Flowers)
  • Poems and Prose, 2008 (edited with an introduction and notes by Simon Humphries)


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