Christina Rossetti Essay - Rossetti, Christina (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Rossetti, Christina (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Christina Rossetti 1830-1894

(Also wrote under the pseudonym Ellen Alleyn) English poet, short story writer, and prose writer. See also Goblin Market Criticism.

Rossetti is ranked among the finest English poets of the nineteenth century. Closely associated with Pre-Raphaelitism—an artistic and literary movement mat aspired to recapture the vivid pictorial qualities and sensual aesthetics of Italian religious painting before the year 1500—Rossetti was equally influenced by the religious conservatism and asceticism of the Church of England. Scholars find in her poetry an enduring dialectic between these disparate outlooks, as well as an adeptness with a variety of poetic forms.

Biographical Information

Rossetti was born in 1830, four years after her father, an Italian exile, settled in London and married Frances Mary Polidori. Demonstrating poetic gifts early in her life, Rossetti wrote sonnets in competition with her brothers William Michael and Dante Gabriel, a practice that is thought to have developed her command of metrical forms. At age eighteen, Rossetti began studying the works of Italian poet Dante Alighieri, who became a major and lasting influence on her poetry, as evidenced in her many allusions to his writing. As a young woman, Rossetti declined two marriage proposals because her suitors' failed to conform to the tenets of the Anglican Church. Rather than marry, she chose to remain with her mother, an equally devout Anglican. Rossetti's poetic production diminished as she grew older and increasingly committed to writing religious prose. A succession of serious illnesses strongly influenced her temperament and outlook on life; because she often believed herself close to death, religious devotion and mortality became persistent themes in both her poetry and prose. In 1871 she developed Graves's disease and, though she published A Pageant, and Other Poems in 1881, she concentrated primarily on works of religious prose, such as The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on the Apocalypse, published in 1892. That same year she was diagnosed with cancer; she died two years later.

Major Works

Rossetti's first published poem appeared in the Athenaeum when she was eighteen. She became a frequent contributor to the Pre-Raphaelite journal The Germ, which her brother Dante Gabriel founded. The title poem of her first collection of poetry, Goblin Market, and Other Poems (1862), relates the adventures of two sisters who are tempted by the fruit of the goblin merchants of Elfland. The poem has been variously interpreted as a moral fable for children, an erotic fantasy, and an experiment in meter and rhyme. In 1874 Rossetti published a collection of prose for children, Speaking Likenesses. The book consists of three fantasy stories which are told to five sisters by their aunt. The title poem of The Prince's Progress, and Other Poems (1866) relates a prince's physical, moral, and spiritual journey to meet his bride. Rossetti's later volumes of poetry consist primarily of reprinted poems from her first three volumes and other sources. The first authoritative collection of her work The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti (1904), was edited by her brother William and contains most of Rossetti's highest esteemed and frequently studied works. Rossetti's devotional verse explores humanity's relationship with God and the nature of life in the afterworld. It also celebrates Rossetti's denial of human love for the sake of religious purity, as in the sonnet sequence "Monna Innominata," included in A Pageant, and Other Poems. Time Flies: A Reading Diary (1885), offers for each day of the year a thought or passage designed to provoke spiritual reflection. In The Face of the Deep, Rossetti explores, verse by verse, the entire Book of the Revelation of St. John. Throughout Rossetti's verse and prose, the themes of isolation and unhappiness recur.

Critical Reception

Critics generally consider Rossetti's poetry superior to her later nonsecular prose works but observe that much of her most highly regarded verse was also inspired by her deeply held religious beliefs. Faulted by some critics for an alleged indifference to social issues, she is praised by others for her simple diction, timeless vision, and stylistic technique. Although she is remembered by many merely as the ethereal symbol of Pre-Raphaelitism evoked in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's paintings, Rossetti also produced a unique body of work that transcends the limits of any single movement. Rossetti's work continues to inspire scholarly study and debate. Modern critics, including Constance Hassett and W. David Shaw, have focussed recent studies of Rossetti on what is unsaid or alluded to in her work. Others, such as Antony Harrison, have explored the feminist aspects of Rossetti's work, and in doing so challenge their nineteenth-century predecessors and their twentieth-century peers who have focussed their examinations of Rossetti on the poet's reticence and her renunciation of this world in favor of the afterlife.


Littell's Living Age (essay date 1866)

SOURCE: "Miss Rossetti's Poems," in Littell's Living Age, Vol. XC, No. 20, August 18, 1866, pp. 441-42.

[In the following review of Rossetti's poems collected in the volume The Prince's Progress, and Other Poems, the critic praises Rossetti 's unaffected style.]

If an illustration of the unsatisfactoriness of Robertson's definition of poetry—"the natural language of excited feeling"—were necessary, it could be found nowhere better than in the productions of Miss Rossetti. On the other hand, however, the definition, when applied to the volume now before us, contains a kind of half truth, for Miss Rossetti, though never excited, is always natural. It would be difficult to find a selection of poems so thoughtful and serious, yet so devoid of that frenzy which is often inseparably associated with the notion of true poetry—such as Miss Rossetti's really is. In all she writes there is a certain element of tranquillity and repose. Calm and subdued herself, she imparts to her reader's mind a kind of grateful quiet. Poetical authorship evidently is with her no field for the display of brilliantly sensational ability. She applies herself to the composition of a poem in the same way, and probably for much the same reasons, that many persons would read the most reflective passages of Wordsworth in solitude; but that solace which others find in reception, comes to her through the exercise of her creative powers. For this reason, if for no others, Miss Rossetti's writings cannot fail to be interesting; whatever imperfections of style and expression we meet with, we cannot help feeling all along that we are contemplating the workings and processes of a mind of no common order. Tranquil in her joy, she is not over demonstrative in her grief. We can perceive that her whole being mourns, but we can perceive, too, very plainly the presence of a self-disciplined heart. Strictly speaking, it is to herself alone that she sings—always sweetly, and always as her passing emotions prompt her utterance. Hence she is to a certain extent inclined to an almost morbid habit of introspection; but behind this there is, as it were in the distance, a faint background of peaceful happiness and satisfaction, which prevents any one of her poems from being gloomy. Perhaps there is no better instance of this than in one of her "Devotional pieces"—all Miss Rossetti's poems are full of the spirit, though not the technicality, of devotion—entitled "Dost Thou not Care?":—

Lord, it was well with me in time gone by,
That cometh not again,
When I was fresh and cheerful: who but I?
I fresh, I cheerful: worn with pain,
Now out of sight and out of heart;
O Lord, how long?—
I watch thee as thou art,
I will accept thy fainting heart, be strong.

But Miss Rossetti can be sportive as well as serious; in the "Queen of Hearts" a good idea is well worked out, and lightly handled. Of the poem which gives its name to the present volume, we do not think that it is altogether the best. Miss Rossetti pleases us most in her short lyrical thoughts—we use the latter word...

(The entire section is 1321 words.)

The Catholic Review (essay date 1867)

SOURCE: "Christina G. Rossetti," in The Catholic World, Vol. IV, No. 24, March, 1867, pp. 839-46.

[In the following review of the verses collected in Poems, the anonymous critic analyzes the defects in Rossetti's poetry.]

We had heard some little of Miss Rossetti, in a superficial way, before reading this her book. Various verses of hers had met our eye in print, and if they themselves left no very decided mark upon the memory, yet we had the firm impression, somehow, that she was one more of the rising school of poets. Accordingly we thought it well to take a retrospect of a few post-Tennysonians—Mrs. Browning, Owen Meredith, Robert Buchanan, Jean Ingelow,...

(The entire section is 5674 words.)

The Dial (essay date 1895)

SOURCE: "Christina Georgina Rossetti," in The Dial, Chicago, Vol. XVIII, No. 206, January 16, 1895, pp. 37-9.

[In the following unsigned essay, the critic praises three of Rossetti's volumes of poetry, comparing her literary achievement to that of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.]

The last day of the year just ended brought news of the death of Miss Rossetti, the youngest of mat famous quartette of brothers and sisters of whom Mr. W. M. Rossetti is now left the sole survivor. Maria Francesca, who died in 1876, was the oldest of the four, having first seen the light in 1827. Then came Dante Gabriel in 1828, William Michael in 1829, and Christina Georgina in 1830. Miss...

(The entire section is 1651 words.)

Mackenzie Bell (essay date 1898)

SOURCE: "Devotional Prose," in Christina Rossetti: A Biographical and Critical Study, fourth edition, Haskell House Publishers Ltd., 1971, pp. 285-318.

[In the following excerpt, first published in 1898, Bell surveys Rossetti's works of devotional prose.]

Annus Domini, which was issued in 1874, through the publishing house of Messrs. James Parker & Co., Oxford and London, is the first in point of date of Christina Rossetti's devotional prose works, and deserves particular attention, as it presents many features showing the inception of her later devotional prose style. Annus Domini is called on the sub-title page 'a prayer for each day...

(The entire section is 6092 words.)

Paul Elmer More (essay date 1904)

SOURCE: "Christina Rossetti," in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 94, No. 6, December, 1904, pp. 815-21.

[In the following essay, More extols Rossetti's "feminine genius" as displayed in her poetry.]

Probably the first impression one gets from reading the Complete Poetical Works of Christina Rossetti, now collected and edited by her brother, Mr. W. M. Rossetti, is mat she wrote altogether too much, and that it was a doubtful service to her memory to preserve so many poems purely private in their nature. The editor, one thinks, might well have shown himself more "reverent of her strange simplicity." For page after page we are in the society of a spirit always...

(The entire section is 4512 words.)

David A. Kent (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Sequence and Meaning in Christina Rossetti's Verses (1893)," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 17, No. 3, Autumn, 1979, pp. 259-64.

[In the following essay, Kent arques that Rossetti's devotional verses must be read as a whole, as the poet intended, in order to fully comprehend their structure and meaning.]

Thanks to such critics as Robillard, Fredeman, and Baker, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The House of Life is no longer thought to lack "systematic arrangement" or a "principle of grouping," as even a sympathetic estimation had earlier asserted. The stubborn ghost of biographical criticism has been successfully exorcized, and the poet's conscious artistry...

(The entire section is 2131 words.)

Kathleen Blake (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Christina Rossetti's Poetry: The Art of Self-Postponement," in Love and the Woman Question in Victorian Literature: The Art of Self-Postponement, The Harvester Press, Sussex, 1983, pp. 3-25.

[In the following excerpt, Blake examines the themes of time, waiting, and "balked desire" in Rossetti's poetry.]

"Hope deferred"—Christina Rossetti repeats this phrase from Proverbs 13.12 over and over again in her poetry. A discouraging phrase, it emphasises and extends the postponement already implied by hope. No other poet returns so often to words like lapse, slack, loiter, slow, tedious, dull, weary, monotonous, long. She plays on the relation between long and...

(The entire section is 7716 words.)

Constance W. Hassett (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Christina Rossetti and the Poetry of Reticence," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 4, Fall, 1986, pp. 495-514.

[In the following essay, Hassett argues that Rossetti uses a variety of techniques to emphasize the concepts that are hinted at and alluded to in her poetry.]

Christina Rossetti is a reserved poet. Against the pressure of her guardedness, her writer's impulse resolves itself into shaped stanzas, deflected understatements, and quieted rhythms. Her laconic style is the result of a deeply private dialectic between verbal evasion and aesthetic control. The paradox of Rossetti's art is that the withholding of speech is constitutive. She bends an...

(The entire section is 6243 words.)

Roderick McGillis (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Simple Surfaces: Christina Rossetti's Work for Children," in The Achievement of Christina Rossetti, edited by David A. Kent, Cornell, 1987, pp. 208-30.

[In the following essay, McGillis analyzes Rossetti's for children, arguing that these works offer lessons and insights for adults as well as children.]

In almost everything Christina Rossetti wrote for young readers we hear an authorial voice strong in ambiguity, whispering secrets beneath what Jerome J. McGann calls "those deceptively simple poetic surfaces" [Jerome J. McGann, "Christina Rossetti's Poems: A New Edition and a Revaluation," Victorian Studies 23 (1980)]. As we allow our minds to play upon...

(The entire section is 8381 words.)

W. David Shaw (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Meaning More Than Is Said: Sources of Mystery in Christina Rossetti and Arnold," in Victorians and Mystery: Crises of Representation, Cornell, 1990, pp. 251-75.

[In the following excerpt, Shaw discusses Rossetti's reserved and tentative style, arguing that her language and poetic techniques reveal her religious beliefs.]

[Christina Rossetti] is a heroic knower: to cross the divide that separates knowledge from belief, she must make such mystery words as "God" and "heart" mean more than she can hope to say. Rather than profane a mystery by scaling it down reductively, as Matthew Arnold tries to do when redefining religion, she prefers to be silent like Clough....

(The entire section is 8033 words.)

Antony H. Harrison (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Christina Rossetti and the Sage Discourse of Feminist High Anglicanism," in Victorian Sages and Cultural Discourse: Renegotiating Gender and Power, edited by Thais E. Morgan, Rutgers University Press, 1990, pp. 87-104.

[In the following essay, Harrison explores the feminist leanings in Rossetti's works.]

[W]hile knowledge runs apace, ignorance keeps ahead of knowledge: and all which the deepest students know proves to themselves, yet more convincingly than to others, that much more exists which still they know not. As saints in relation to spiritual wisdom, so sages in relation to intellectual wisdom, eating they yet hunger and drinking they...

(The entire section is 6636 words.)

Further Reading


Addison, Jane. "Christina Rossetti Studies, 1974-1991: A Checklist and Synthesis." Bulletin of Bibliography 52, No. 1 (March 1995): 73-93.

Biographical sketch and extensive bibliography of writings about Rossetti from 1974 to 1991.

Crump, R. W. Christina Rossetti: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1976, 172 p.

Bibliography of writings about Rossetti from 1862 to 1973.


Battiscombe, Georgina. Christina Rossetti: A Divided Life. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston,...

(The entire section is 770 words.)