Christina Rossetti Biography

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(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Christina Georgina Rossetti was born on December 5, 1830, the youngest of four children. Her father, Gabriele, an Italian political refugee, was himself a poet and musician. Her mother, of half-Italian parentage, wrote a popular book on Dante, and her older brother, Dante Gabriel, became a noted poet and a leader of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Because of financial problems, the Rossettis moved from Portland Place to Mornington Crescent in 1851 so that Christina and her mother could open a small day school for children, thus providing a financial base for the family. By 1854, William Rossetti, Christina’s brother, then a clerk in a revenue office, had rented a house on Albany Street, where the family lived together. After Christina’s father died in that year, her mother and her siblings lived on there until 1867, and it was only because of William’s marriage to Lucy Brown in 1874 that Christina and her mother moved to Torrington Square.

Christina was not a world traveler, but her few experiences abroad did affect her poetry. She went abroad but twice, once in 1861 and again in 1865, and it was the Italian journey that is reflected in so much of her writing. She wrote some poetry in Italian, but her love for Italy can be seen in much of her English work. One excellent example is “Vanna’s Twins,” the story of an Italian family living in England.

Her first book, published in 1847 when she was seventeen, was a collection of poems privately printed by her grandfather Gaetena Polidori, himself a writer. The volume titled Verses contained sixty-six pages of poems written by Rossetti between the ages of twelve and sixteen. The longest piece in the volume was “The Dead City,” a poem that exhibits both immature technique and masterful poetic potential. Immersed in a Poe-like atmosphere, the motif is that of a traveler in a dark wood, having passed from a stage of light. She finds herself in a deserted city resplendent with an ornate palace. A sumptuous banquet is ready, but the guests have turned to stone. The poem anticipates Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold, and T. S. Eliot in its wasteland motif and echoes Keats’s sensualism.

By 1850, Christina had become a tangential member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, of which her brother Dante was the center, and she published various poems in the Brotherhood’s magazine The Germ. Although Christina loved her brother dearly and respected the other members of the group, she felt that they were too concerned with morally questionable subjects for her to engage herself directly in the work. It was, ironically, through the Pre-Raphaelites that she met a young man named James Collison, to whom she was greatly attracted and whom, had it not been for his Catholicism, she might well have married.

In 1862, after having gained much attention through the poems in The Germ, Rossetti published a volume titled Goblin Market, and Other Poems. The work was greeted with general acclaim, her only critics being metric purists such as John Ruskin. She brought out another volume in 1866, The Prince’s Progress, and Other Poems, which established her as England’s greatest living woman poet, since Elizabeth Barrett Browning had died in 1861.

Although Christina was sickly in her youth, it was in 1871 that she became seriously ill with Graves’s disease, which brought many periods of depression and caused her to adopt the role of recluse. During these years of severe illness, she experienced several unpleasant events: Her sister Maria died of cancer in 1876; in 1877, she and her mother began the miserable nursing of Dante Gabriel through five years of psychotic depression; and in 1886, her mother died. In the midst of all this suffering, Rossetti continued to write. Her third volume of poetry, A Pageant, and Other Poems , was published in 1881 and praised highly by Algernon Swinburne, the only remaining member of the old Pre-Raphaelite coterie. She continued to enjoy the admiration of younger writers such...

(The entire section is 2,239 words.)