Christina Rossetti Critical Essays

Christina Rossetti Poetry: British Analysis

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Christina Rossetti, often thought of as a religious poet, became the major woman poet of mid-Victorian England with the publication of Goblin Market, and Other Poems in 1862. Her only true “competitor,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning, had died a few months earlier. “Goblin Market,” the introductory poem of the volume, has remained her most famous work and illustrates her mastery of the lyric.

“Goblin Market”

Because much of her lyric poetry is oriented toward children, “Goblin Market” is often classified as a children’s poem. Even though the characters in the poem are young girls and goblins with fairy-tale associations, the poem is actually an allegory of temptation and redemption meant for adult reading. Rossetti’s common theme of the need for renunciation is prevalent, though in the disguise of whimsical child’s play. The poem produces a grotesque comic effect, supported by irregular meter and cumulative cataloging. The tempting fruit of the goblins, described in Rossetti’s typical sensual manner as “sweet to tongue and sound to eye,” causes Laura to succumb, desiring more, only to discover that her pleasure is terminated.

Lizzie acts as the savior. Like Christ, she goes into the grove of the men selling their wares and offers to buy some, only to discover that they really want her, not her penny. Although she suffers much physical abuse, the evil people are “worn out by her resistance,” and she returns home jubilant with her penny in hand, able to comfort Laura with the assurance that one can find happiness without the temptations of pleasure. Later, when both girls have married, they are able to relate to their daughters in didactic fashion how one can avoid the pitfalls of the evil world.

Rossetti’s strong visual imagination aligns her with the Pre-Raphaelites’ interest in painting. Although she did not paint, Christina had a painter’s eye: The love of colors, particularly gold, rose, violet, blue, and green, and the delight in decorative detail inform her lyrics. Her eye often sees unexpected analogies. In “Goblin Market,” for example, she compares Laura’s arched neck to a swan and a lily, both natural phenomena, but also to a vessel being launched, a rather startling comparison somewhat in the vein of the seventeenth century Metaphysical conceits. In fact, several critics have alluded to her love for seventeenth century poets, especially George Herbert and Henry Vaughan.

“The Prince’s Progress”

In addition to her lyrics, Rossetti wrote a great deal of narrative verse, characteristically on the theme of lost or frustrated love. Most of these love-narratives are romantic and otherworldly; when Rossetti does attempt realism, especially in describing marital love, her images are pale and flat. One of the longer narratives, “The Prince’s Progress,” developed out of a lyric of 1861; Rossetti expanded it at her brother’s suggestion to provide a title poem for her next volume of poetry. Much like the tale of Edmund Spenser’s Red Cross Knight, this poem is the story of a princess waiting to be rescued by a prince.

The prince waits in his palace for a full month before leaving to meet his bride. When he finally hears the call, prompted by allegorical voices that represent fleeting time, he discovers that the journey will not be easy. It will be another Pilgrim’s Progress. His first delay is the typical temptation of a beautiful maiden who keeps him as Dido detained Aeneas. Following his release, the prince finds himself in a nineteenth century wasteland with a blight lurking in the darkening air, “a land of neither life nor death.” Here he discovers a cave with an old hermit who gives him the “Elixir of Life,” but the elixir is insufficient. When he eventually leaves the cave, he is again diverted by self-indulgence, and when he finally arrives at his bride’s door, he finds that she is dead, her body being prepared for burial. The poem is an interesting narrative in the vein of medieval romances, but it is obviously allegorical. The prince is admonished by the narrator, “You waited on the road too long, you trifled at the gate.” The poem is permeated with ironies and allegorical symbolism proclaiming the vices of procrastination.

“From House to Home”

“From House to Home” is another long narrative, allegorical in character, with lost love at the center. It tells of a variety of states of being. In the first of these states, the narrator is living in an earthly paradise: a castle of transparent glass set against a background of stately trees and pastures...

(The entire section is 1906 words.)